Army sees DISA as 'clear choice' for secure cloud IT services

In applying Obama-mandated 'cloud first' policy, Army aligns its data systems with direction pushed by Defense Information Systems Agency.

The Army views the cloud computing environment operated by the Defense Information Systems Agency as the "clear choice" for any of its systems containing classified and official use information, Col. Gary Langston, chief of information infrastructure for the Army Chief Information Officer, told Nextgov.

Cloud computing is gradually replacing the current structure built on accessing data and applications locally with a networked system that stores data in remote centers. DISA operates 14 secure data centers around the world served by the high-bandwidth Global Information Grid. DISA officials said on Monday that the agency is "uniquely positioned" to become the leading provider of cloud computing services to the entire Defense Department.

Langston said in an e-mail that DISA and its data centers are the "logical choice" for both data storage and application hosting. In October 2010, the Army signed an agreement with DISA to host all its e-mail, which now serves 1.4 million unclassified users and 200,000 secret users in the cloud.

Though Langston views DISA as the clear choice to host classified data, systems and applications, he said, "If a system only contains information for public consumption, then data compromise is less of an issue," potentially leaving the door open for commercial cloud services.

Last month, the Office of Management and Budget mandated a "cloud first" policyfor all federal departments and agencies and said they are required to pick three "must move" services within three months.

Langston said besides moving e-mail to a cloud environment, the Army also plans to migrate its enterprise e-mail directory, which will allow 950,000 users worldwide to share calendars and easily look up colleagues' e-mail addresses.

This directory will store information about users and manage security, and it includes software that simplifies network architecture. An Army fact sheet said the enterprise directory will enable the service to operate its network more efficiently, with administrative and maintenance costs "dramatically reduced."

Langston said the Army also is "actively pursuing" migration of its SharePoint collaboration software to a cloud environment. But he cautioned that the service needs a good business case before it moves other applications to the cloud, and must balance its return on investment with intangible benefits, such as enhanced interoperability.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra said that as part of the governmentwide cloud policy he wants to reduce the number of federal data centers from 2,100 to 800 by 2015. The Army currently operates 250 data centers, Langston said, and aims to cut their number by 75 percent during the next five years.

But, he added, the exact number of data centers the Army will need is "difficult to calculate as there are over 250 data centers with 250 unique capabilities and cost elements. Additionally, it's difficult to capture the fully burdened cost of each data center with respect to infrastructure, energy consumption and other hidden operating costs."

Migration to the cloud also will require upfront investments for software reconfigurations, and costs will vary, depending on the complexity of the software, Langston said.

While Langston termed cloud computing an "inviting" technology, he said the Army is focused on development of a single Army Enterprise Network that would provide integrated service from commands in the United States operating on broadband networks to units on the tactical edge in combat operating on limited-bandwidth networks.