CIA endorses cloud computing, but only internally

While it can improve security, the agency won't be outsourcing data to Google or Amazon

WASHINGTON -- One of the U.S. government's strongest advocates of cloud computing is also one of its most secretive operations: the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA has adopted cloud computing in a big way, and the agency believes that the cloud approach makes IT environments more flexible and secure.

Jill Tummler Singer, the CIA's deputy CIO, said that she sees enormous benefits to a cloud approach. And while the CIA has been moving steadily to build a cloud-friendly infrastructure -- it has adopted virtualization, among other things -- cloud computing is still a relatively new idea among federal agencies.

"Cloud computing as a term really didn't hit our vocabulary until a year ago," said Singer.

But now that the CIA is building an internal cloud, Singer sees numerous benefits. For example, a cloud approach could bolster security, in part, because it entails the use of a standards-based environment that reduces complexity and allows faster deployment of patches.

"By keeping the cloud inside your firewalls, you can focus your strongest intrusion-detection and -prevention sensors on your perimeter, thus gaining significant advantage over the most common attack vector, the Internet," said Singer.

Moreover, everything in a cloud environment is built on common approaches. That includes security, meaning there's a "consistent approach to assuring the identity, the access and the audit of individuals and systems," said Singer. But there are limits. The agency isn't using a Google model and "striking" data across all its servers; instead, data is kept in private enclaves protected by encryption, security and audits.

The CIA uses mostly Web-based applications and thin clients, reducing the need to administer and secure individual workstations. And it has virtualized storage, protecting itself "against a physical intruder that might be intent on taking your server or your equipment out of the data center," said Singer.

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