DISA Execs Outline Agency Needs at AFCEA Luncheon

Published: January 10, 2013

Big DataCONGRESSDEFENSEDISA

DISA is turning toward COTS solutions more than ever and collaborating with the intelligence community on big data solutions rather than investing in commercial solutions. Areas of opportunity still exist, but for the foreseeable future it looks like their windows are becoming narrower and pool of available dollars shallower.

This week I had the opportunity to attend AFCEA DC’s first monthly luncheon of 2013. The event featured a panel of officials from the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), including Tony Montemarano, Director for Strategic Planning and Information; Dave Mihelcic, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Principal Director, GIG Enterprise Services Engineering (GIG-ES); Mark Orndorff, PEO for Mission Assurance and Network Operations and Chief Information Assurance Executive; and Dr. Jennifer Carter, Component Acquisition Executive. The panel covered more ground than I can go over in a short blog so rather than summarize all of what was said (you can read some of that here), I will instead offer a few thoughts on the things that caught my attention. This way I hope I can offer readers some insight into the ways that DISA’s evolving strategic direction could affect the market.
The first thing that struck me about the presentation was the tone surrounding the dire fiscal situation. In my opinion this went beyond the standard calls for cutting costs and reining in expenses.  To quote Mr. Mihelcic, “the DoD is losing IT budget.” Period. This is changing the way that DISA must do business. No longer will the agency have the budget to fully build out capabilities. Instead it will leverage commercial innovation “on industry’s dime,” Mihelcic said, and ask industry to provide the DoD with commoditized technology solutions. To put it differently, DISA is hammering the final nail in the coffin of the proprietary IT solution. DISA will not buy proprietary solutions if it can help it. Instead, the solutions that DISA will consume are those that it can fit seamlessly into its IT infrastructure with minimal integration work.
Now, some might say that this should have been the approach from the beginning. As a taxpayer, I agree. As an industry analyst, however, I wonder how vendors will respond and adapt because using commoditized solutions (i.e., COTS) drives down prices. Competition for contracts is reduced to who can undercut the competition (i.e., Lowest Price Technically Acceptable). Government pays less, and while that’s great for them, it hurts vendors. My suspicion from all of this is that we are going to see more big deals like the recent $617 million joint enterprise license agreement for Microsoft products and fewer contract awards overall.
The second theme that got my attention was the extent to which DISA, and the DoD as a whole, is working with the Intelligence Community (IC). Coordination between the two establishments always has been close, so the discussion of it comes as no surprise. What struck me though was the extent to which the DoD and IC will be working together on IT solutions. Take big data, for example. Mr. Orndorff stated that DISA will build a small subset of data analytics capabilities, and DISA is interested in hearing about commercial solutions. In general, however, the DoD will be leveraging advanced database software already developed by the National Security Agency (NSA). Mr. Mihelcic identified the NSA’s Accumulo open architecture database software as the solution the DoD will adopt department-wide.
The adoption of Accumulo delicately addresses language in the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that directs the DoD to use commercial solutions for its big data database needs. According to the Joint Explanatory Statement (p. 184) on the NDAA, “the DoD has already determined that the Accumulo database that NSA developed using government and contract engineers is a successful open-source project that is supported by commercial companies. The conferees expect that future acquisitions of Accumulo would be executed through such commercial vendors.” Sure, commercial vendors like Sqrrl, a company founded by former NSA engineers who developed Accumulo.
I imagine this decision takes some wind out of the sails of an industry that is already under stress from declining federal IT budgets. Many vendors have been developing big data solutions to meet the needs of big customers like the DoD. Now they will need to scramble to adapt their products and solutions to the Accumulo framework.
Taken together, DISA’s turn toward COTS solutions and narrowed options for commercial solutions for big data signal that doing business at the agency is becoming more competitive than ever. Areas of investment where DISA will still need support appear to be in IT planning and consulting, network operations and optimization, satellite communications, mobile devices, management, and services, and cloud computing.  There are thus areas of opportunity, but for the foreseeable future it looks like their windows are becoming narrower and pool of available dollars shallower.