Every day the intel community has more questions. Is the cloud an answer?

Cloud adoption within national security has greatly enhanced data storage capabilities and sped up long projects, officials said June 11 at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit.

“One of the best decisions that we made, and [it’s] a decision that I think will stand as one of those that caused the greatest leap forward, was when we decided to go with elastic cloud computing,” said Susan Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the entire Intelligence Community.

Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon speaks at the annual GEOINT 2019 conference in San Antonio. (Photo courtesy of USGIF)
Why the intel community is at an inflection point with data

The Intelligence Community is entering a third inflection point, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is leading the way in adapting to it, says Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon.

The IC, Gordon said, is using the cloud environment as the “foundation” for its cybersecurity initiatives and to move its security data, which allows the IC to patch “more effectively.” Beyond that, the cloud has also allowed the IC to do its job more efficiently.

“We’re faster,” Gordon said. “We can ask more questions and the cost of asking those questions is almost nothing. We take on much more complex problems than we did before. We are multi-disciplinary and multi-organizational because we’re allowed to have the same foundation.”

Gordon also said that because of cloud computing, ODNI has learned how to input data for the IC’s specific needs and how to move data around to different applications and mission uses.

“We’ve tackled some of our toughest community problems, at speed, at cost, because ... we exist in a computing environment that allows us to,” Gordon said.

ODNI is not alone in extolling the cloud’s virtues. The Army’s Program Analysis and Evaluation office has capitalized on the cloud’s ability to grow and manage the changing demands of its users, a capability also known as scalability.

For example, the Army is using the cloud to deliver differing options to commanders during the budgeting process, said PA&E Director Major Gen. John Ferrari at the same event. Data engineers under Ferrari’s command can see what happens across the program if the size of the Army increases or decreases.

“So if the leadership says, ‘Hey, I want to make this change,’ before [the cloud] it would take a lot of effort to do,” Ferrari said. “Now we can come back over and over again and we can iterate with them. And they go, ‘Hey, if I don’t buy this weapons system but I do this, what is the impact on our installations if I add $100 million a year to facilities renovation. What will that do?’”

Ferrari said cloud computing fits into the Army’s framework because of the service’s heavy focus on data, and it can do the same for other organizations that integrate it properly.

“We have a strong culture and history of manipulating data,” Ferrari said. “My lesson learned is if you don’t start with data and build outward, you’re probably not going to succeed. … [If] you don’t know how it fits into your business, you’re not going to get full benefit of the cloud.”

Kenny Bowen, chief information officer of special access programs at the Department of Defense, explained during the panel that the cloud has increased agency delivery time of different tasks and helped identify where old processes slow his team down.

“We’ve compressed our times of delivery from what was almost always, always measured in years, to averaging it in few short months,” said Bowen. “And when it’s really, really critical we can do it in a few days.”

Bowen cited one project his team received that had to be completed in less than six months. Without going into specific details, he said that his team completed the project in far less time because of their cloud capabilities.

“At the end of the day, what’s the big takeaway? Thirteen days, more capable, more secure than we ever were,” Bowen said.

Despite the new capabilities that cloud computing has provided, Gordon said that the IC can’t settle for just one cloud; instead, the community has realized its need for various configurations, such as a multiple cloud environment, elastic cloud, commercial cloud or hybrid cloud. That need presents the community with new data challenges.

“And just when we thought we had this data foundation, this security thing right, we’re going to have to rethink it, as we have before, to be able to adjust to not how humans want to use data … we’re now going to have to tag data and use it for machine use,” Gordon said.

Going forward, Gordon said the IC needs to be fast in recognizing and adopting technologies that can advance its mission.

“What we need to be is fast followers,” Gordon said. “As quickly as governments, or private sectors or universities, identify something that can work for us, we need to be able to bring it into our environment.”

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