The intelligence community is about to get the equivalent of an adrenaline shot to the chest. This summer, a $600m computing cloud developed by Amazon Web Services for the CIA over the past year will begin servicing all 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community.
If the technology plays out as officials envision, it will usher in a new era of cooperation and coordination, allowing agencies to share information and services much more easily and avoid the kind of intelligence gaps that (supposedly) preceded 9/11. For the first time, agencies within the IC will be able to order a variety of on-demand computing and analytic services from the CIA and NSA. What’s more, they’ll only pay for what they use.
The vision was first outlined in the IC Information Technology Enterprise plan championed by DNI Clapper and IC Chief Information Officer Al Tarasiuk almost three years ago. Cloud computing is one of the core components of the strategy to help the IC discover, access and share critical information in an era of seemingly infinite data. For the risk-averse intelligence community, the decision to go with a commercial cloud vendor is a radical departure from business as usual.
In 2011, while private companies were consolidating data centers in favor of the cloud and some civilian agencies began flirting with cloud variants like email as a service, a sometimes contentious debate among the intelligence community’s leadership took place. As one former intelligence official with knowledge of the Amazon deal told:
It took a lot of wrangling, but it was easy to see the vision if you laid it all out.The critical question was would the IC, led by the CIA, attempt to do cloud computing from within, or would it buy innovation? Money was a factor, according to the intelligence official, but not the leading one. The government was spending more money on information technology within the IC than ever before. IT spending reached $8b in 2013, according to budget documents leaked by Edward Snowden. The CIA and other agencies feasibly could have spent billions of dollars standing up their own cloud infrastructure without raising many eyebrows in Congress, but the decision to purchase a single commercial solution came down primarily to two factors. The former intelligence official said:
What we were really looking at was time to mission and innovation. The goal was, can we act like a large enterprise in the corporate world and buy the thing that we don’t have, can we catch up to the commercial cycle? Anybody can build a data center, but could we purchase something more? We decided we needed to buy innovation.The CIA’s first request for proposals from industry in mid-2012 was met with bid protests to the Government Accountability Office from Microsoft and AT&T, two early contenders for the contract. Those protests focused on the narrow specifications called for by the RFP. GAO did not issue a decision in either protest because the CIA reworked its request to address the companies’ complaint. In early 2013, after weighing bids from Amazon Web Services, IBM and an unnamed third vendor, the CIA awarded a contract to AWS worth up to $600m over a period of up to 10 years.
The deal, handled in secret, was first reported by FCW in Mar 2013, sending ripples through the tech industry. A month after the deal became public, IBM filed a bid protest with GAO that the watchdog eventually upheld in June, forcing the CIA to reopen bids to both companies for the contract. A legal struggle between Amazon and Big Blue ensued, and AWS filed a lawsuit against the federal government in Jul 2013, claiming the GAO sustainment was a flawed decision. In October, USA Court of Federal Claims Judge Thomas Wheeler sided with Amazon and overturned GAO’s decision to force the CIA to rebid the contract.
Big Blue went home, AWS claimed victory under the deal’s original financial specs, and nearly 18 months after the procurement was first released, the CIA and Amazon went to work. It is difficult to underestimate the cloud contract’s importance. In a recent public appearance, CIA Chief Information Officer Douglas Wolfe called it “one of the most important technology procurements in recent history,” with ramifications far outside the realm of technology.