Pentagon's IT has its head in the cloud

The US Defense Information Systems Agency 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 on the front line.

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The Defense Information Systems Agency provides most of the systems used within the US Department of Defense.

CIO John Garing, a retired Air Force colonel, said he and his staff have met with their counterparts at businesses such as Google, Amazon.com, United Parcel Service of America and travel-reservation systems operator Sabre Holdings to talk about how the companies use technology. A pending trip to FedEx 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.

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