Pentagon's IT unit seeks to borrow tech ideas from Google, Amazon, other companies

DISA CIO sees cloud computing as IT future, looks to learn from corporate approaches

The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency, which provides most of the systems used within the Department of Defense, has been reaching out to a wide range of companies in the belief that their IT approaches — including the use of cloud computing technologies — could help DISA better support the military's warfighting men and women.

John Garing, a retired Air Force colonel who is now DISA's CIO, said he and his staff have met with their counterparts at businesses such as Google Inc., Inc., United Parcel Service of America Inc. and travel-reservation systems operator Sabre Holdings Corp. to talk about how the companies use technology. A pending trip to FedEx Corp. is scheduled for next week, he added.

Garing said that he wants to learn all he can from the companies, and that it's important to do so "because most of us are the prisoners of our own experience." From the meetings that have been held thus far, Garing is convinced that cloud-based IT services will be the future of military data processing. Cloud computing is "going to be the way — it has to be," he said. "We have to get to this standard environment that is provisionable and scalable."

According to Garing, DISA has begun deploying a system that is similar architecturally to Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) technology, a Web-based computing service that enables users to quickly scale up their processing capabilities. DISA's system, called the Rapid Access Computing Environment (RACE), is scheduled to go into use at the start of the federal government's next fiscal year, in October.

Here's an example of how RACE will work: A Marine platoon leader in the field, using a client device with Web support, will be able to dynamically access a wide range of information sources and meld together data. That could include the location of battalion aid stations, nearby fuel and ammunition supplies, maps, information about available helicopter support — whatever is needed to complete the platoon's mission. Underlying the data will be a common set of applications, Garing said.

Amazon and Sabre's Travelocity unit operate systems that have to be prepared for the unexpected, he added. "They have no idea who is going to hit them, for how long, and from where and how often," Garing said, requiring the companies to have back-end technology "that enables elasticity and flexibility, so they can maintain market share."

DISA, which is based in Arlington, Va., supplies and supports battlefield command-and-control systems as well as the systems that handle most of the DOD's heavy-duty business applications, including finance, payroll, logistics, human resources and transportation services. The IT agency operates as a service provider that charges its customers within the DOD for their use of its systems.

"DISA is very conscientious of its position as a service provider," said Ray Bjorklund, an analyst at consulting firm Federal Sources Inc. in McLean, Va. He added that DISA has to compete for the business it gets from other military agencies, which in some cases have options to use private-sector IT services providers operating under government contracts.

Bjorklund sees Garing's approach as a result of his experience in the military and the private sector, coupled with an understanding that DISA must operate much like a business and produce an attractive offering of IT services at a competitive price.

Garing said he's also interested in the processes that companies use to deploy technology, not just their technology itself. In particular, he has made number of visits to Google, which follows a process that can move an idea for a new online service from the laboratory to beta testing and then to real users in just a few months. If the service gets a lot of hits from users, Google will flesh it out, Garing said; if it doesn't draw much interest, the company will drop the project and minimize its investment.

Contrast that approach to the DOD's internal processes: First, Garing said, someone will write a detailed specification, which will be followed by a lengthy analysis of alternatives — "only to deliver something in five years that is 4.5 years out of date." Speed and flexibility is what helps make Google and other companies successful, in Garing's opinion, "and that's why we went to see them."

DISA works with a variety of IT vendors; for instance, the agency will be using a blade system from Hewlett-Packard Co. as part of the cloud computing platform it's developing.

Alfred Rivera, DISA's director of computing services, said he expects cloud-based services to give a push to increased IT standardization in the military. As DISA provides a standard suite of operating platforms as well as increased deployment speed and agility under the RACE initiative, other agencies within the military will want to use the technology, thus bringing standardization with it, Rivera said.

Garing plans to continue seeking out businesses and individuals that are forward-thinking in their approaches to IT — for instance, by inviting people such as Marc Andreessen, the co-author of the Mosaic Web browser and co-founder of Netscape Communications Corp., to talk to DISA employees.

Many companies and people have been generous with their time, Garing added. "They're patriots, all of them, and they want to share," he said. "If they can make us better consumers [of technology] and smarter at what we do, then the Defense Department is better off, and so are the warfighting kids that we are taking care of."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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