The shift to Web-based data storage will help agencies take greater advantage of open-source information.
Cloud computing has the power to not only change the way the federal intelligence community manages information technology, but also to fundamentally change agencies' business models, according to a report released Tuesday.
That change will be effective, however, only if intelligence agencies are prepared to modify their own organizational cultures to match the new technology and to learn from similar transitions in the corporate and civilian government spheres, the report from the nonprofit Intelligence and National Security Alliance said.
Most important, the report noted, successfully moving to cloud infrastructure will require shifting the acquisition cycle to enable the Defense Department and intelligence agencies to launch programs in one or two years rather than five years or more.
At its most basic level, the transition to cloud storage and computing means the intelligence community is better able to parse new troves of open source and signals information such as social media posts and cellphone transmissions, experts said during a panel discussion on the report sponsored by INSA and by Nextgov's editorial partner Government Executive magazine.
"Because of the explosion of technology around the world, there's a tremendous amount of insight we can gain into people and cultures that's not through classified sources," said Terry Roberts, executive director of the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute's Acquisition Support Program and a former deputy director of naval intelligence.
"So it's really about how do you effectively access all of that information and process that information and certify it and blend it with classified sources," she said. "Ten years ago that [open source information] might have been, maybe, 10 percent. Now, I think it's reaching more than 50 percent of the key information that we need to be analyzing and understanding."
Cloud computing also allows users to rapidly expand and contract the amount of computing they use for a particular project, which is a good fit for the process of sifting through open source Web data, much of which involves separating out a little bit of intelligence or a hidden pattern from a huge amount of noise.
On another level, the shift to cloud means intelligence that once was collected agency by agency and the intelligence community historically strived to share more easily can now be stored in shared clouds and accessed across agencies based on credentials, the experts said.
"Now the [National Security Agency] is leading a lot of these cloud substantiations on behalf of the entire intelligence community . . . that's the beauty of this opportunity," Roberts said.
The INSA report described this shift as moving from an "infrastructure-centric" to a "data-centric" business model.
Cloud computing is "not a panacea," said Bob Gourley, founder of Crucial Point, a technology research firm, and an author of the INSA report, echoing a statement by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
"For example," the report noted, "when an application uses an entire physical machine or is sized to use multiple dedicated physical machines, then it may not be a good candidate for moving to the cloud."