There’s lots of happy-happy hype about “the cloud.” If you press the experts, though, they’ll admit that the savings from adopting cloud computing will come in the long run, not the near term, and only after a lot of hard work – including, when it comes to government, some all-out turf wars.
With budgets getting tight, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is counting on big savings over the next decade from implementing cloud computing – essentially, consolidating lots of separate information technology systems that each serve a separate organization into one centralized system to reap efficiencies of scale. The National Security Agency director and director of Cyber Command, Gen. Keith Alexander, predicted a 30-40 percent savings in NSA’s information technology costs from its move to the cloud, now in progress. “We’re using this [cloud computing] and we’re using this in real world missions,” said Jim Heath, Alexander’s senior science advisor, at a National Press Club event this morning. “It’s a paradigm shift.” But other intelligence agencies may resist the cloud because it would tend to centralize power and funding under the DNI.
“Those who have budgets and agendas to protect will resist change,” declared a report advocating cloud computing for the intelligence community, rolled out today at the Press Club event by the non-partisan (but largely industry-funded) Intelligence and National Security Alliance. But, the report went on, in a messianic moment, “Those who figure out how to capitalize on the cloud’s capabilities have the best chance to succeed, and agencies who continue to use legacy models will face irrelevancy.”
To get cloud computing to work for the intelligence community, “you have to change the people and processes that have been in place for years,” one of the report’s authors, Kevin Jackson, told Breaking Defense after the Press Club event. But why would they want to change? “They don’t,” he said. “They’re being forced to.”
“Yes, it will be breaking some china,” agreed Terry Roberts of Carnegie Mellon’s Software Engineering Institute, the former Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence, who chairs INSA’s “cyber council.” “Particular agencies will lose the flexibility to design and own and operate that-agency-only IT and data centers,” Roberts said. “The intel community as a whole will all get to benefit if they do it right.”
Breaking that china will be up to the DNI, the nominal overseer of all intelligence agencies, Roberts said, “who does determine the national intelligence program budget,” she said. “They can lay down the program guidance…. They can give resources and they can taketh them away.”
So far, however, successive Directors of National Intelligence – Clapper is the fourth in the office’s seven-year existence – have struggled to corral older, politically connected, and independent-minded intelligence agencies. Clapper can’t count on his clout as DNI to advance the cloud computing agenda. What he needs is a forcing function: budgets are going down, but IT expenditures just keep on going up.
It’s the fear of rising costs rather than the hope of reducing them that seems to be the most powerful driver. The INSA report takes pains to downplay the carrot of cost savings: “A 2011 study,” the report notes, “showed that more than half of organizations surveyed saved little or no money after transitioning to cloud computing.” Said Jackson, “it costs to change. [In many cases,] you’re going to have a spike in cost, initially.” Instead, the report emphasizes the stick of “cost avoidance”: Going to the cloud may not save you money soon, maybe not ever, but not going to the cloud will cost you more as your current information technology gets more expensive to keep going.
“The legacy stuff is going to stop being supportable,” said Roberts. “In the next five or ten years, there’s very little in the IT arena that the government is leveraging today that will be cost-effectively sustainable,” she told Breaking Defense. “Either you’re not going to be able to afford it or there aren’t going to be vendors out there who are going to be able to provide it [at all].”
The spread of mobile devices like the Apple iPad is driving the commercial IT industry inexorably towards cloud computing, Roberts said, because mobile devices have relatively little computing power themselves and rely on wireless access to “the cloud” – in other words, to large, centralized servers that take input from lots of little devices, do the computational heavy lifting, and send the final output back. As the profit motive lures IT companies towards this new model, fewer and fewer will have the patience to work on one-off systems like those most government agencies now use, and those that do will charge more and more.
“The government is never going to drive the marketplace [in information technology] like we do for stealth fighters,” Roberts said. So if government doesn’t catch up to the cloud, it will end up with idiosyncratic information systems that only a small number of specialized vendors can build and maintain – as is already the case in most defense sectors from fighter jets to ships to tanks – with all the cost overruns and technological lag that entails.