WASHINGTON — For years, the Pentagon said it needed one giant enterprise cloud environment to bring big data and advanced artificial intelligence to the battlefield, and it pursued one company to provide it.
But from the outset years ago, industry critics warned that one vendor and one enterprise cloud wasn’t the optimal way to manage its vast data stores and provide access to inventive technology.
Now that the Pentagon succumbed to a yearslong court challenge from the losing vendor that blocked the huge, singular enterprise cloud known best by its acronym JEDI, Defense Department technology leaders are buying into the notion that multiple clouds sewn together are better than one as the military shifts its thinking to prepare for war in the digital age. Experts praised the change that they said will allow the Pentagon to tailor cloud its workloads, take advantage of industry innovation and save money.
“You must have multicloud really to be as successful as you can be, to go with the best fit for your mission need given the varying capabilities that each of the CSPs [cloud service providers] bring to the fight in their given area,” acting Chief Information Officer John Sherman told reporters earlier this week when he announced that the Pentagon would replace JEDI with the multicloud Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability.
David Mihelcic, former chief technology officer of the Defense Information Systems Agency, said that the switch to multicloud means the department is trying not to be “overly prescriptive” and gifting IT staff the flexibility to pick the cloud that’s “most appropriate for their mission requirements.”
“Every system is different. One size doesn’t fit all. They might have different capabilities in terms of features, in terms of processing speeds for various functions,” said Mihelcic, now a consultant at DMMI Associates. “Giving these program offices and developers the ability to pick the most appropriate cloud is going to help them deliver their capability more quickly and with the best feature set for the right customers.”
The department stressed that the multicloud would be more flexible than JEDI, or the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, a contract that would have been worth up to $10 billion over a decade. With JEDI, the single-award structure was the primary criticism of observers who feared the department would get locked into one vendor long term and cut off access to changes in technology. With JWCC, the cloud solution will provide DoD components the “critical flexibility to tailor cloud solutions that best support their specific workloads and mission needs,” the department JWCC fact sheet states.
JWCC will be an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract that will initially solicit proposals from JEDI winner Microsoft and its challenger Amazon Web Services — the only vendors the Pentagon says meet it requirements — while the department completes additional market research to find out if other companies can compete.
The department will benefit from more industry ideas by opening up its enterprise cloud environment to multiple vendors, experts told C4ISRNET.
“Multicloud allows more rapid innovation you can take advantage of depending on what you’re trying to get done,” said Rob Carey, former Navy CIO and deputy DoD CIO, now president of Cloudera Government Solutions.
Competition among the cloud service providers to develop the most advanced tools faster than competitors will benefit the DoD.
“Let’s say there’s an AI function that’s only available on Amazon, a program could leverage that to do something they couldn’t do before. So they’re going to be able to innovate more quickly just because there’s more feature sets available,” Mihelcic said.
After the JEDI cloud delays, the department wants to move more quickly with direct awards made between April and June next year. To meet that timeline and avoid delays, experts said the department needs to ensure the contract remains competitive.
“My view would be to have it be flexible [and] open it up to as many providers as is reasonable and leave the opportunities to bring in future providers as technology changes and as solutions change,” said Bill Greenwalt, nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial policy in the George W. Bush administration.
As the department repositions its focus toward warfare driven by data and away from the Middle East, the department’s cloud needs are changing. At the time JEDI’s requirements were written in 2017 and earlier, the department did not face the same threats as it does today, and four years of technological advancement have occurred since JEDI was initially solicited.
“I really do think that when it was originally written, the mindset of the department and the national security environment ... hadn’t done a deep dive into what the next national security strategy was going to look like and what the potential adversaries were going to do as they increased in their capabilities,” said retired Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association. “I really do believe that this [JWCC] is something that is going to get us to take advantage of where the technology has led us combined with the environment and national security challenges that we face.”
Now, the Defense Department is forging ahead with Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept to connect sensors and shooters with military branches fighting as one across multiple domains. The JWCC cloud contract, Sherman said, was developed with JADC2 and the IT needs of combatant commands in mind. Ultimately, JADC2 relies on the department’s ability to make data accessible to all war fighters regardless of where they are on the globe. The effort to build that plan are overseen by Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall, CIO/J6 of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said repeatedly JADC2 needs an enterprise cloud.
“His requirements ... heavily leverage cloud computing,” Carey said. “They know cloud is the path. So this is that fundamental that helps JADC2 to come to fruition.”
Carey told C4ISRNET that he expects the Joint Warfighter Capability Cloud to retain 90 percent of the requirements of the JEDI cloud, with the fundamental difference being the multicloud architecture.
“The base computing needs of the department for enterprise-class storage and compute change relatively slowly in the macro,” Carey said. “When we get into the command and control of the hybrid environment, the connectivity of things, those specific nuances of capabilities have changed.”
The department’s JWCC fact sheet shows similar requirements to JEDI’s, including data access at all classification levels, a cross-domain solution allowing data to flow across classification levels, high cybersecurity requirements and availability at the tactical edge.
Sherman said data portability will be a “key aspect” of any requirements, and the department will look for containerized applications that can be moved between platforms. The difference now, Sherman said, is that the department “no longer has the need for the consolidated ‘data lake’” but rather requires an “agile environment where you can do different workloads capitalizing on different capabilities.”
During this switch to a multicloud enterprisewide capability, the department could face hurdles both in the acquisition of the cloud and its management.
The department wants to avoid the drawn-out litigation that spelled doom for JEDI, in part due to allegations of unfair acquisition practices that favored different companies. With the Pentagon naming AWS and Microsoft as qualified providers, experts said the department should be open about its needs to avoid the delays that hindered JEDI.
“Let’s be more clear and transparent about what it takes,” Mihelcic said.
Asked by C4ISRNET what separated Microsoft and AWS from other cloud service providers in the department’s market research, the DoD wouldn’t discuss specifics.
“DoD used a combination of existing contract vehicles and internal Department information to inform the current landscape of CSPs able to offer the services needed for the JWCC,” said department spokesperson Jessica Maxwell. “This information, while current, needs to be validated via the hyperscale cloud vendors, which is why the Department is continuing its market research.”
With the department connecting sensors to shooters and trying to make the enterprise cloud available to personnel worldwide, the clouds need to stitch together seamlessly.
“The complicating factor in all of this is the issue of interoperability between the new systems,” said Alex Rossino, advisory research analyst at Deltek. “The DoD will need to ensure that the data in one cloud can be easily accessible to the other.”
That poses a management challenge. JEDI was billed as a “pathfinder” cloud for the department’s future cloud needs, and some observers questioned if the department was capable of managing an enterprise cloud made up of multiple vendors. Now, Carey said, there are tools to manage a multicloud enterprise environment that weren’t available a few years ago, such as mature tools for cybersecurity, network maintenance automation and orchestration, and policy governance and compliance.
“There are many technologies out there today that allow you to command and control multicloud environments,” Carey said. “So at the end of the day, this is not as hard as it appears. What’s more important is that there are these requirements of information access from any place on the planet by anybody that needs it with the right credentials.”
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.