COVID-19 has dramatically impacted every level of operations within the U.S. Department of Defense, making it difficult to imagine a quick return to the old way of doing things. The most recent evidence is found in comments by Defense Secretary Mark Esper at a May 4 virtual Brookings Institution event: “There will be a new normal that we will have to adapt to for an extended period of time at least until we have a vaccine that we’re confident in.”

Esper also noted he was “pleasantly surprised” at the level of productivity Pentagon employees have achieved while teleworking under less-than-ideal conditions. Balancing productivity with the need to defend national security over a period of upcoming months, if not years, represents a challenge and opportunity as DoD personnel turn to commercially available telework tools.

DoD’s new security challenges

When we started to think about the tools that the DoD would need to navigate this radically changing environment, we realized they must address the fact that the Department’s high-impact data will now need be stored in a variety of places on-premises as well as in remote environments. This led us to conclude that the Department will likely have to start to build on-premises private clouds and more significantly increase their integration with, and use of, multiple public clouds. In order to do this, the DoD will need to address four key challenges, each with national security implications.

Managing rapid transformation

DoD CIO Dana Deasy is heading up the DoD Teleworking Readiness task force of CIOs and senior IT officials to address challenges introduced by a “maximum telework” policy. The bottom line is that executing this major transition in such a short amount of time has never been done in federal agencies to this degree. The DoD must manage this migration while preserving continuity of business and not compromising the highest levels of national security as the attack surface extends to less controllable, individually acquired devices and data.

Ensuring data mobility

DoD CIO Deasy recently stated that some of the data being created was living in an unclassified environment, and that the agency is “looking at options on how we take this data and preserve it and-or port it into other collaboration environments, going forward.“

Data mobility also requires cloud mobility: agencies must be able to move data seamlessly and securely between environments. The data needs to be portable, easily managed and flow between all endpoints so that agencies can avoid vendor lock-in. Seamless mobility goes hand-in-hand with the flexibility OMB envisions Cloud Smart enabling when it comes to moving data and applications.

Reducing data complexity

Commercial vendors perpetually innovate to simplify the user experience. Technology isn’t uncomplicated, of course, but providing ways to make it as simple as possible must be a goal for any provider. Deploying a collaboration tool, public cloud service or communications platform on its own is manageable, but the challenge arises as organizations start to work with multiples of them.

As DoD brings more of these pieces into its networks then it naturally increases the complexity, so the DoD must insist on simplicity in its multi-vendor, multi-cloud environment. Additionally, significantly expanded access and use of the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) in a remote or telework environment may be required to exchange information so that personnel who need to know may receive and generate mission critical information.

In this context, the DoD must also consider how quickly and effectively data can be copied and backed up, how quickly it can be recovered, and how can this be done in a consistent way across both on-premise data and multiple clouds. But protection will also mean encryption and ensuring data is secure regardless of where it lives. The final piece of this puzzle includes access and compliance; who is accessing data, from where, who is moving it, and if they did move it, are we now exposed to any kind of security or compliance breach.

The path forward

Growth in DoD telework capacity is pushing data management to the edge. Overcoming those challenges requires holistic, integrated data management capabilities.

Let’s start at the Infrastructure as a Service layer. Predominantly, the requirements that DoD must focus on here are how to reduce costs or to reduce risks, but there is a lot more to this layer as well. As they consider their infrastructure, DoD organizations must also think about what performance and density they can achieve, what level of protection is available inside each storage end point, does it connect to the cloud (so they can consider data tiering, for example), do they need capabilities for compliance, and can they get these capabilities across storage end points in the cloud as well as on premises.

There isn’t one product that can do all of these things together, which is why DoD organizations must have multiple solutions that allow them to choose the one that meets the combination of characteristics they need. Organizations will likely need more than one solution to address all of their requirements, and therefore they must be built without silos. That requires the establishment of a data fabric, strategy.

A data fabric enables organizations to fully discover, integrate, automate, optimize, protect, and secure data, applications and resources across whichever protocols are the most appropriate for their requirements. Uniquely built by each organization, a data fabric ensures that data and applications are in the right place, at the right time with the right characteristics and capabilities to fuel innovation.

Next comes the Platform as a Service layer, where DoD organizations must consider how they can introduce data services that allow them to continue to reduce operational risk while increasing agility. There a number of key capabilities that must be considered at this layer including discovery, integration, automation and protection.

Finally, the real value of all of these data management capabilities comes at the Software as a Service layer, where DoD IT teams utilizing their data fabric are able to accelerate results and increase agility for the application owners and developers.

In sum, COVID-19 will require a transformation in the way DoD manages and runs its IT infrastructure to maintain productivity and national security. That evolution is going to take place much faster than anyone expected, catalyzed by unanticipated work-from-home mandates. It will require an overarching strategy in order to future-proof the system as a whole, and we believe an integrated data fabric approach is the right enabling strategy.

Greg Gardner is chief architect for defense and intelligence at NetApp.

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