When cloud computing first emerged, would-be customers worried their data might not be secure in it. Much has changed since then. Even the Intelligence Community (IC) and the Department of Defense (DoD) — institutions that clearly prioritize security — have determined they can’t afford not to be in the cloud.

Several new DoD contracts are going out this year to build new cloud-based services that will span the entire agency. And numerous defense leaders have publicly stated that they now see cloud computing as not only convenient and cost-effective, but profoundly necessary for a U.S. military that seeks to boost its capabilities for taking on twenty-first-century security threats.

Those contracts include one $8 billion Defense Enterprise Office Solution (DEOS) contract to build an agency-wide, cloud-based system that provides integrated email, content management, voice, and other information-technology platforms and services. More than three-million military personnel will use DEOS when it is finished, according to the DoD’s Defense Information Systems Agency, which issued a draft request for proposals for this project last month. A final request for proposals is expected to go out at a to-be-determined date later this year. An even larger $10 billion sum will go to the winner of another contract, the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud project. The DoD’s Cloud Executive Steering Group, which will issue the award, said that that the JEDI cloud service will stretch across the full breadth of the DoD and provide a wide swath of storage programs, network infrastructure, and platforms for servers and software. The steering group intends to send out a final request for proposals for JEDI this month and make an award by the end of September.

The DoD’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) is paving the way for JEDI. In the meantime; Navy Capt. David McAllister, SCO program manager, said that the SCO is working out the details of JEDI implementation now with the Defense Digital Service and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental.

The three offices’ workload includes migrating core DoD services to the cloud, streamlining security and infrastructure, and modifying data management and advanced analytics—all to be completed by fiscal-year 2019, with additional, more sophisticated capabilities to come online the following year, McAllister said. He added that the three offices are trying to “validate the capabilities within JEDI” and see what kinds of “warfighting advantage and back-office efficiencies” JEDI can deliver.

DoD Looks to the commercial sector to Maintain its advantage

A bigger defense trend is underway here. Last September, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan declared that the DoD will be aggressively accelerating its adoption of commercial cloud services, arguing that it is “critical to maintaining our military’s technological advantage.”

This strikes a sharp contrast with the rest of the federal government. A government-wide Cloud Computing Initiative went into effect in 2009, and the Office of Management and Budget challenged every agency to spend 15% or more of their IT funds on cloud service by 2016. Not one agency met the target. And a recent White House American Technology Council report complained that “impediments in policy, resource allocation, and agency prioritization” have resulted in slow uptake of cloud-based offerings in the federal sector.

None of these impediments are stopping the DoD, however. And it’s not hard to see why: the need to stay technologically ahead of America’s adversaries.

It’s not just that cloud computing is cheaper, more agile, or easier to use than conventional systems—though it arguably is all three. It’s that the cloud is increasingly the main gateway to accessing breakthrough technologies that all of the world’s leading militaries aspire to have: artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, virtual and augmented reality, and “blockchain” technology for encrypting data; to name a few. Each of these is emerging in the cloud as service offerings. Some, such as blockchain, actually work only on cloud-based platforms.

The blockchain: it’s not just for bitcoin

Blockchain commands great interest within DoD and other federal agencies because it offers a potentially extra-secure way to protect online communications and transactions from hackers. Machine learning and robotics are high-priority along with it, because fast data-gathering and data-analysis are becoming more and more vital to defense operations. And as they do, the need to develop AI and enhanced computational systems for crunching the data only grows.

“The (DoD) now views AI and other critical emerging technologies as cornerstones of its own long-term strategy to gain competitive advantage by automating and accelerating battlefield intelligence, operations, and decision-making,” wrote Dominic Delmolino, chief technology officer of Accenture Federal Services, in a post on Nextgov. “It recognizes that commercial cloud providers are pioneering technologies in this field and their pace of innovation is extremely rapid.”

Being a fully prepared twenty-first-century fighting force means going wherever the technology innovation is. And for the foreseeable future, that means going into the cloud.

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Rick Docksai is a Department of Defense writer-editor who covers defense, public policy, and science and technology news. He earned a Master's Degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland in 2007.
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