Cloud clarifies Haiti relief work

Cloud computing work in Haiti relief efforts reflects broad transformation.

One of many visions for government cloud computing played out for real in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake. The Defense Information Systems Agency's Rapid Access Computing Environment became the network platform for relief workers to share information in the impoverished nation in the absence of basic communications networks.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Ronnie Hawkins, DISA's vice director, told a group government and contracting executives at a conference in Washington on Thursday that the agency was able to put a network infrastructure into place “at the speed of heat" using the cloud-based system. RACE normally provides on-demand computing capabilities for the military, but in Haiti, military and nongovernmental groups used it to provide a network platform for Working with Transnational Information Sharing Cooperation and the All Partners Access Network, Hawkins said.

It provided a diverse group of users “situational awareness that allowed people to chat and build courses of action," he added.

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The so-called infrastructure-as-a-service and readily-available software applications permitted relief workers to establish ad hoc text messaging and collaboration services. The on-demand availability of DISA’s computing networking services drew praise from federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra as an example of how recent technology and social media innovations can revolutionize the way government works with citizens.

Chopra and Hawkins spoke in separate sessions March 18 at a conference on cloud computing and service oriented computing architecture sponsored by the D.C. chapter of the Armed Forces Electronics and Communications Association. Chopra, who challenged his audience to embrace game-changing uses of technology, noted how the DISA computing service enabled relief workers to locate Creole translators and counselors online throughout the world to help respond to text requests for help.

For Hawkins, however, the success of RACE is just one part of DISA’s broader efforts to move away from a platform-centric approach in providing computing and communications services, to one that is focused on providing enterprise-level services across its entire network, whenever and wherever its military customers need them.

Hawkins said this network-centric enterprise service “does not mean IP-capable. And it does not mean just being on the network,” he said. Rather, “to be net-centric means being standards-based, platformless, interoperable, interdependent, and data-centric,” he said.

Part of that approach is embodied in the National Senior Leadership Decision Support System that DISA is developing under the direction of Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright. The goal, Hawkins said, is to store information in the cloud and make it discoverable and accessible to whomever needs it virtually anywhere in the world.

Hawkins acknowledged that many of DISA’s enterprise services are still maturing. But he pointed to DISA’s progress with its Global Content Delivery Service. Before GDCS, a 1.2 MB file took more than a minute to download over DISA’s networks, he said. Today the same file downloads in 2.5 seconds.

Behind those services, he said, is an emphasis on service-oriented architecture that takes into account the need for universal connectivity, whether it's person-to-person, person-to-machine, or machine-to-machine, he said. It also takes into account the importance of taxonomy and labeling to make information easy to discover and more capable of being delivered in the right format, anywhere, at any time.

“We don’t talk about [continuity of operations] anymore, but [about being] always on,” he said.

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