Information Sharing Takes on New Shape
The intelligence community’s new cloud technology architecture promises increased mission agility and lower operating costs.
U.S. intelligence agencies soon will be able to share information with each other in a single common computing environment. This effort will increase intra-agency cooperation and efficiency while cutting information technology operating costs through the use of shared services.
The Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (ICITE) is part of a broad strategy led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and supported by the chief information officers (CIOs) of the five major intelligence agencies. ICITE replaces the old agency-based information technology model with one using a common architecture operating as a single enterprise across the intelligence community.
Launched in 2012, ICITE is not a formal program of record but a development effort directed by the ODNI and agency CIOs. ICITE has five major goals: create a single, standards-based interoperable enterprise architecture for the intelligence community; provide seamless and secure collaboration tools for person-to-person and data-to-data information sharing; establish a standardized, consolidated business process to support agency missions; set up a governance and oversight process; and create partnerships in the intelligence community, across the U.S. government, international partners and industry.
Since the effort’s inception, the intelligence community has made progress with getting ICITE off the ground, but there is still a lot of work to accomplish, says Paige Atkins, vice president for cyber and information technology research at the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation in Arlington, Virginia. Atkins also leads the Intelligence and National Security Alliance ICITE Task Force, which is advising intelligence community and Defense Department officials on how to implement ICITE. She notes that establishing ICITE and getting the intelligence agencies to cooperate represents a significant shift in how the agencies traditionally operated and interacted with each other. The Defense Department has undertaken a similar effort with the Joint Information Environment (JIE), a secure shared computing architecture for defense agencies, which ultimately will interoperate with ICITE, she explains.
It is difficult to move organizations used to working within their own data stovepipes into a common architecture and then deciding what information will be shared, Atkins acknowledges. “It’s something that can’t be done overnight because of that [cultural] shift.”
To move the ICITE process along, an association task force outlined four key areas that require near-term investments that will yield long-term benefits: determine ICITE’s architecture from an agency, mission and user perspective; define a common information technology baseline for the first wave of transformation; deploy common information technology services to gain experience for the next wave; and set up priorities for leadership to achieve broader, deeper changes in technology, workforce and culture.
One of the key motivators behind developing ICITE was money, Atkins explains. Besides the need to improve the intelligence community’s agility in responding to new threats and to improve its ability to scale up new technologies and secure its networks from cyber attack, the community had to consider looming budget cuts and their impact on agency information technology resources. It boiled down to efficiency in terms of how the intelligence community could cut costs and share information across the federal government, she says.
An important part of ICITE’s mission is improving information sharing between intelligence agencies and improving security for that shared data. To achieve these capabilities and reap the financial rewards of increased efficiency, the effort is seeking to lower agency operating costs through the shared use of commercially developed capabilities such as cloud computing, virtualization, thin-client desktops, big data analytics, applications stores and improved security. The goals and structure of ICITE also mirror those of the Defense Department’s JIE effort, such as the use of enhanced information sharing, increased operating efficiencies and savings through shared resources, Atkins says. She adds that the fiscal reality facing the government—years of flat or reduced information technology spending—also will motivate agency leaders to continue supporting these two efforts.
When it is fully complete in 2018, the ICITE architecture will contain a set of common services accessible to all of the intelligence community’s organizations. While intelligence agencies will share many resources, not everything will be part of ICITE. Some agencies, such as the CIA, will keep specific mission-centric capabilities to themselves, Atkins reports.
The ICITE architecture also will define agency services, such as a common cloud for shared Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA) data. But this model will consist of two separate clouds working in a larger cloud model, Atkins explains. To users, data in this shared cloud will be seamlessly accessible, but the CIA’s and NSA’s data will reside in their own individual secure environments.
Seamless interoperability between these two clouds will be managed through shared application software. ICITE features an architecture supporting common services such as desktop environments, an applications mall and transport services. Each of these capabilities is a work in progress. As new needs and service structures are identified, they will also be included into the framework. “The architecture is truly evolving over time,” Atkins states.
The goal behind ICITE is to have shared services bear as much of the daily workload as possible for efficiency. However, Atkins adds that the model is not intended to support a single user organization. There will be capabilities that will remain unique to individual agencies to carry out their missions, but these special services won’t necessarily operate via ICITE, she relates.
Standards and rules for ICITE are created through a governance process. The ODNI CIO is responsible for decisions about ICITE’s environment and service implementations, Atkins says. Overall governance of ICITE is handled through the intelligence community’s CIO Council. ICITE is managed at several levels, with the CIO Council and executive board overseeing programs, resources and requests for common services. Higher level decisions are managed through the director of national intelligence, who has overall approval authority.
However, it is up to the individual agencies to provide specific services and execute some of the architectural elements of ICITE. Agencies must work these aspects within their budget and executive authorities, Atkins explains. She adds that the intelligence community is still working on the business model to provide funding and cost authority at the individual agency level.
The target date for ICITE’s initial operational capability is this year, with full operational capability in 2018. ICITE will be delivered in increments. As newer capabilities and services are introduced, older applications and technology will be retired. The initial set of ICITE services for the first increment will be delivered this year and consist of a common desktop, common backup tools, broader and standardized access to analytic tools and applications, and data-centric computing via interoperable government-developed and commercial cloud environments.
Many technical challenges remain to be worked out before ICITE is fully operational. Atkins notes that culture still remains a significant hurdle. This is because the information sharing architecture envisioned by ICITE is fundamentally different in terms of how data was shared between intelligence organizations. Agencies traditionally controlled their information in individual stovepipes and rarely shared this material with others. One of the hardest transitions to a common shared platform will be determining how industry will interface with the intelligence community to provide services and applications, she suggests.
Standards are another issue. For example, the envisioned intelligence community cloud, which will entail two nested and interoperating clouds, will require common standards to ensure interoperability and ease of use. Standards are also being developed for the applications mall, for user interfaces and for any products brought into the mall.
Data standards are another important consideration. “It’s not just about protecting the network; it is about protecting the data,” Atkins states. Security needs extend to protecting and encrypting data, tagging data and identity management for users. There are many standards-related activities throughout the ICITE environment, many of which are being worked on with the assistance of the Defense Department CIO’s office. Atkins notes that although ICITE and the JIE are separate efforts, at some point in the future, they will have to interact with each other. Because of this need, the intelligence community and the Defense Department are working closely to ensure that these systems can communicate and share information, she says.
When it is fully operational, ICITE will not directly connect to what Atkins refers to as nontraditional service providers—nongovernment commercial firms and academic organizations. However, steps are being taken to expose these nontraditional providers to the intelligence community’s needs to create a better understanding between all of the groups, she acknowledges.
For example, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA’s) new chief innovation officer, Dan Doney, is putting into place an unclassified environment called BRIDGE where groups outside of the intelligence community can bring in their technology and demonstrate it in a controlled environment. Atkins says BRIDGE could serve as a platform to help solve challenges faced by ICITE and with other mission-related areas in the intelligence community. There is an impetus in the DIA to spur innovation across the agency to support the intelligence community in areas such as innovating and developing new technologies and applications.