The death of the Pentagon’s controversial cloud computing mega-contract likely puts Amazon and Microsoft in a new sort of partnership.
Now that the Defense Department has canceled its signature $10 billion enterprise cloud computing contract, what’s next for the military’s cloud needs?
Defense Department officials say that the solution will look a lot like a marriage between what’s being offered by Microsoft’s Azure and Amazon Web Services. It won’t be the single massive cloud envisioned as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, affectionately called JEDI, but the bottom line from Tuesday’s announcement is that the Pentagon is not going back to the days of small, distributed cloud environments that don’t interconnect.
Rumors of the JEDI cloud contract’s cancellation had been circulating for weeks and there have been clues recently as to what kind of cloud the Pentagon wants. Two weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall, the Joint Staff’s chief information officer, and director of command, control, communications and computers/cyber spoke about the possible collapse of the JEDI contract during the Defense One Tech Summit. Whatever the outcome of the legal fight over JEDI, he said, the Pentagon would continue to pursue an enterprise cloud option, if a bit messier than the original JEDI concept.
“I do believe that the solution that we’ve asked for still holds true today,” Crall said, but he described the likely post-JEDI solution as “a composite.”
“No matter what solution is decided upon, there will always be some level of menu that’s required. The only difference would be scale,” he said.
Scale is the operative word. Defense Department officials have made clear that they’re not going back to the old days of many clouds from tiny vendors with no central cloud environment for data access and distribution. A cloud on the scale of what AWS, Microsoft, or Google can provide is essential to realize the Pentagon’s dream of joint all-domain command and control, or JADC2.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks reiterated that point, also speaking at the Defense One Tech Summit. “The department must have an enterprise solution approach to make the most of JADC2 And again, that’s the warfighting edge. ...So, there’s no doubt that we have to have a pathway forward on cloud.”
Today, that pathway looks like a joint Amazon and Microsoft cloud, the two largest companies that were fighting over the JEDI contract. The Pentagon’s chief information officer, John Sherman on Tuesday told reporters that both AWS and Microsoft would “likely” be awarded contracts under a new program called the “Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability.” But they wouldn't be the only ones.
That cloud network, where two enterprise cloud environments existing together looks a lot like what the Air Force is currently working with, as part of the curiously named Cloud ONE, which the Air Force stood up to better manage and make use of its own data as part of its JADC2 effort. Admin users can decide which of the two clouds they want to host their data on the basis of which features they like but the data also moves between them. Right now, the Air Force reports about 67 percent AWS admin users versus 33 for Microsoft Azure.
Cloud companies have come a long way since when the JEDI contract was first conceived in 2017 according to one former senior military official deeply involved in crafting IT and cloud contracts for the Pentagon.
“I honestly believe the Department made the right decision to cut and reset. I only hope that Microsoft and Amazon find a way to make peace long enough to allow the process to move RAPIDLY so that DoD gets access to enterprise cloud as fast as possible,” said the former official, in a direct message. “I see a distinct resemblance to [Air Force] Cloud ONE.”
How Did We Get Here
From the moment the JEDI cloud contract was conceived, it had enemies. IT companies that had been providing cloud computing services to various parts of the Defense Department didn’t like the implications of the entire department moving toward one enterprise cloud environment. It was clear that a larger share of Pentagon cloud business would go to one of the three companies with the size to actually handle the Pentagon’s rapidly expanding data needs. Amazon, on the basis of its size and the security credentials it had already earned, was lauded as the clear frontrunner to win the JEDI contract. But public assumptions—some proffered via misinformation campaigns by companies who felt left out of the running for the $10 billion reward—did not reflect the reality of what the Pentagon expected.
“The information war over JEDI led to a lot of myths about what it was and was not. It was never a single cloud for DOD. It was a starting point for DoD to learn lessons about shifting the Department to enterprise cloud, much as CIA had done several years ago. Those lessons enabled the Agency to then put out a bid for multiple enterprise cloud solutions. They had to pass through gate A to allow entry into gate B,” said the former senior official.
Among the interested parties vying for the JEDI mega-prize, a secret war was launched against current and former Defense Department officials, apparently seeking to undermine the chances of frontrunner Amazon Web Services. This eventually made it to the attention of lawmakers and President Donald Trump who, upon discovering that the likely winner looked to be Amazon, founded by rival Jeff Bezos, complained publicly about the program, citing objections from “some of the great companies in the world.”
“The perception of political interference from the White House, whether real or perceived, poisoned the well. Recovery became less and less likely with every passing month. Time to move on,” said the former official.
At the time, however, several defense officials who spoke to Defense One began to make clear one essential point: that Amazon was by no means a shoe-in. Microsoft was proving to be a nimble competitor with deep ties across the Pentagon, and was moving forward on quickly on acquiring the requisite security credentials. What the officials could not accept was the lack of an enterprise cloud solution that would force the military to return to the networked kludge of clouds it had.
In 2019, former defense officials speaking to Defense One described the deep technical barriers to linking all of the Pentagon’s little clouds together into a larger Frankenstein cloud. It’s one reason why Amazon, Google, and Microsoft decided to build their own clouds in the first place rather than buy from the commercial market. Different vendors have different application programming interfaces, or APIs, software development kits, or SDKs and other issues. The result: a suboptimal solution.
The good news for the military and whichever companies get to build its cloud of the future is that data integration between Microsoft, AWS, and possibly Google looks very different today than when the Pentagon was trying to figure out how to do it between some 500 different clouds, said the former official. “Amazon, Google, and Microsoft seem to have had a recent awakening that cloud integration is actually a better business model. That's what they seem to be saying...whether it happens or not remains to be seen.”