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Amazon hiring 'top secret' IT staff as it fights for CIA work

Government private cloud bid represents new approach for Amazon -- one that has put it at odds with IBM

September 4, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - The U.S. isn't doing a good job keeping secrets. Think Edward Snowden. But demand for trustworthy IT professionals is strong, especially if they want to work for Amazon Web Services.

Amazon has more than 100 job openings for people who can get a top secret clearance, which includes a U.S. government administered polygraph examination. It needs software developers, operations managers and cloud support engineers, among others.

Amazon's hiring effort includes an invitation-only recruiting event for systems support engineers at its Herndon, Va., facility on Sept. 24 and 25.

Amazon is challenging established IT vendors for U.S. government intelligence work, illustrated by an escalating fight to build a private cloud for the CIA.

Amazon was initially picked by the U.S. over IBM to build a cloud platform for the spy agency. IBM protested the award and prevailed in an administrative ruling. Amazon filed a 61-page complaint in federal court last month challenging the decision to re-bid this project.

For Amazon, this may be a fight as much about perception as it is about the bid's technical issues. In its government lawsuit, Amazon said it realized, before most other companies, how cloud computing "could fundamentally alter the path of computing," and this gave it "a multiple-year head start on late adapters."

Amazon describes IBM as "a traditional fixed IT infrastructure provider and late entrant to the cloud computing market."

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, said he's "a bit uncomfortable with Amazon's positioning" in the lawsuit of cloud services "as something new that a vendor like IBM is somehow incapable of delivering."

Cloud computing "simply describes one approach to data center asset provisioning, one that has been around and been practiced by vendors including IBM for many years," King said. "This doesn't reflect on the relative merits of either company's bid for the CIA project but to consider one or the other as somehow inherently superior seems mistaken to me," he said.

The government was apparently willing to pay a premium for Amazon's cloud implementation. The amount of the bid by the vendors wasn't disclosed, but government evaluation of the bids put the prices at $148 million for Amazon versus $93 million for IBM.

Analysis of this dispute is difficult because the government has redacted parts of the information around it. But Bill Moran, an analyst at Ptak Noel & Associates, describes in a report, some of the problems the vendors faced.

The vendors were required to address hypothetical scenarios. In one instance, it involved the processing of 100 terabytes of data. But the scenario was ambiguous, and the vendors priced it in different ways, making it impossible to compare prices, wrote Moran.

There were other issues with the bid, but overall the Ptak Noel report said the CIA "did a poor job with a poorly worded" request for proposals.

The Ptak Noel report goes further and argues that the "CIA showed bias in favor of Amazon," but it also faulted IBM, saying the company needed to do a better job of writing and presenting its proposal. IBM said it did not pay for the Ptak Noel report.

Ptak Noel also said that CIA officials "too casually brush off Amazon's outages" in evaluating the proposals. IBM, citing Amazon's outages, said in a statement that "Amazon's definition of availability doesn't measure up to mission critical needs of the federal government." Amazon didn't comment.

This dispute aside, Amazon is clearly making inroads with other government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the State Department and the Department of Agriculture.

Amazon's effort to get government cloud work includes being certified by the U.S. under its Federal Risk and Authorization Program, or FEDRAMP.

"Amazon can be a formidable competitor," said Ray Bjorklund, who heads market research firm BirchGrove Consulting, and points to the company's decision to file a lawsuit as supporting evidence.

However, Bjorklund said he wondered whether the dispute, as it goes through the resolution process, will hobble the CIA in its effort to develop its cloud platform.

covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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