Incoming: Once Struggling for Defense Department Acceptance, Cloud Is Now Inevitable

May 1, 2019
By Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.)

Within the last year and a half, an exciting development has taken place at the Defense Department: It has turned the corner on cloud.

For years, the department had followed a cautious, even wary, approach toward cloud adoption. But after reading the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the department’s new artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud strategies, one can only conclude that top defense leaders now view cloud as the cornerstone of our future military readiness.

As the National Defense Strategy says, the Defense Department must “deliver performance at the speed of relevance. Success no longer goes to the country that develops a new technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting.”

And the cloud—with its elastic, scalable and secure features—increasingly is the only place where modern and future capabilities can be readily accessed and deployed. These capabilities include AI, machine learning, advanced data analytics, blockchain technology, augmented and virtual reality, the Internet of Things, container technologies for developing and deploying microservices and precision medicine technologies.

The acknowledgment that cloud is foundational to the Defense Department’s modernization goals was first codified in a September 2017 memo by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. This memo directed department leaders to broaden and accelerate their cloud adoption efforts. It led to the launching of the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) and Defense Enterprise Office Solution (DEOS) cloud procurements and the release in February of a comprehensive Defense Department cloud strategy.

These developments reflect several very positive signs—namely, that defense leaders have come to recognize cloud adoption as a critical step for Incorporating emerging commercial technologies into the armed forces. These are needed to prepare our fighting forces for the threat landscapes and battlefields of today and tomorrow. The National Defense Strategy casts the need to quickly incorporate emerging technologies as a military readiness concern and calls for a more “rapid dispersion of technologies” to create “a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force.”

Likewise, the Defense Department cloud strategy makes clear that “cloud is a fundamental component of the global infrastructure that will empower the warfighter with data and is critical to maintaining our military’s technological edge.”

This is an important insight for all decision makers across the defense community to realize. Cloud often has been portrayed primarily as a means to achieve cost savings and scale workloads and data management. While cloud technologies do those things, they increasingly are a baseline requirement for organizations to access emerging and transformative technologies such as big data analytics, machine learning and AI—the building blocks for modern military operations.

Cloud also delivers performance rapidly. As the National Defense Strategy puts it: “Our response will be to prioritize speed of delivery, continuous adaptation, and frequent modular upgrades.” Cloud excels at these functions.

Cloud enables the department to transcend its many silos and organizational barriers that often trip up needed interoperability. As Essye Miller, principal deputy to the Defense Department chief information officer, said about the DEOS cloud program: “We operate pretty much in a disparate environment right now, and predominantly on-[premises] for these capabilities. So DEOS will give us an opportunity to tear down some of those barriers, posture us for increased interoperability while taking advantage of what the commercial community has to offer.”

While these positive signals are important and needed, the department still has far to go in its cloud adoption journey. The problem is that much of the energy and activity around cloud remains at the policy and programmatic levels of the department. There still is not enough cloud migration activity at the data center and information technology operations levels, which is where it counts.

A chief reason for this is that many still view commercial cloud as risky from a security standpoint. In fact, the opposite is true. Today’s commercial cloud technologies are designed with robust security features throughout. Moreover, employing cloud technologies enables Defense Department organizations to greatly accelerate their DevSecOps programs and practices so that new capabilities they develop are more secure than ever.

As defense embraces the cloud, which I believe is inevitable for all the reasons given, it then can begin delivering leap-ahead innovations such as AI to dramatically enhance readiness and capability. We’ll examine that topic next month.

Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.), is managing director for the Armed Forces Sector, Accenture Federal Services. She previously served as the CIO/G-6 for the U.S. Army as well as the commanding general for the Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM).

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