Army private cloud to attack IT sprawl and save millions

Savings from APC2 expected to total tens of millions

Industry experts estimate the Army should save millions in IT costs after its recently awarded Army Private Cloud (APC2) contract is fully implemented.

IBM, Lockheed Martin, HP Enterprise Services, General Dynamics One Source, Northrop Grumman, Criterion and Microtech were awarded the contract, in support of the Army Program Executive Office Enterprise Information Systems. The Army Contracting Command is the contracting activity.

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Although specific figures on the cloud savings are tough to quantify, seasoned federal contractors watching this deal from the sidelines are confident the savings should be substantial.

“The Army should be able to realize savings in the tens of millions over the life of the APC2 contract,” said Thomas Ruff, a vice president at Akamai Technologies, citing similar cloud savings realized by the Air Force and the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Randy Lee, director of Federal Systems Engineering at Fortinet, agrees:  “I would estimate that it could be in the tens of millions in savings,” although he added, “it is tough to put a true price on the cost savings.”

Awarded earlier this year, the $250 million contract is part of a larger Army program to eliminate 185 of its data centers by the end of 2015, according to COL Chris Miller, chief of Army Data Center Consolidation at the Army CIO. 

Many of those data centers are underused, having much more computing power and storage than is actually needed.

Under the Army’s cloud initiative, all that computing power and storage will be centralized in fewer locations. Ideally, the move will enable the Army to maximize use of all hardware. In addition, the service will be able to update and maintain software much more quickly and easily. 

“Decreasing the number of data centers, and therefore the points of presence on the network, will improve the security of Army information and simplify data management,” Miller said.

Akamai’s Ruff agrees, saying during the past 10-plus years, "PC and storage sprawl has become an IT management nightmare. It’s virtually impossible to ensure that the proper software, security patches and firmware updates have been deployed in a distributed computing environment. Centralized management makes it easier to update and keep technology current.”

Cloud drawbacks

However, skeptics say centralization of computing power triggers its own problems, including concerns over security, as well as the troublesome reality that in the cloud, the ultimate control over data and applications resides with a few, privileged, human gatekeepers.

Under its cloud program, the Army plans to use Defense Department enterprise computing centers as much as possible for its computing needs. Specialized needs will be handled by private-sector contractors, or as a last resort, Army-owned data centers, Miller said.

Data centers already on the chopping block for cloud consolidation include 16 locations where Army bases are being realigned or closed, as well as at another 11 locations, all in the continental United States.

In September 2011, the Army also put more teeth in this program. The service expanded a 2010 moratorium on the procurement of new servers to include a moratorium on the construction of new Army data centers.  And renovation of existing data centers was also stopped, Miller said.

Ruff, a cloud evangelist, based his predictions that millions will be saved by the Army Private Cloud on a similar project Akamai implemented for the Air Force.

“The Air Force GCSS (Global Combat Support System) program saves millions of dollars every year by leveraging the Akamai Cloud to deliver Web content and applications to its globally distributed user base,” Ruff said.

Instead of building its own data centers to deliver that content, the Air Force turned to Akamai’s data centers to handle the job.  “GCSS-AF estimated it would cost more than $10 million to install the necessary Web infrastructure -- Web servers, database servers, load balancers, etc.” at only one of the many data centers it estimated was needed for the task.

“In addition to the one-time acquisition expenses, recurring costs associated with operations and maintenance were estimated at over $10 million per year, per data center,” Ruff adds.

Portable Cloud

One of the first contractors to put the Army Private Cloud’s funding to work is Microtech. The company is creating ruggedized, "man-transportable" portable cloud centers for the service that can be quickly dropped into combat zones or other crisis areas.

Similar versions of Microtech’s portable cloud centers, drawn from its MicroKloud product line, are being used by the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government agencies. The portable clouds are leveraged to quickly integrate highly versatile computing power into disaster recovery zones and domestic emergency scenes.

“We have fully committed ourselves to creating and providing cutting-edge cloud and data center solutions,” said Tony Jimenez, MicroTech's president and CEO.

In theory, it’s difficult to dispute the cloud’s advantages. Service fees for tapping into the cloud are often based on an extremely reasonable, metered plan.  If you only require a little computing time for a particular project, that’s all you’ll pay for. If you need a little more time, you pay a little more.

What’s more, in a perfect world, Army personnel around the world would be able to source the cloud no matter where they are. Also, they’ll be able to source all the applications and data they need there from a wide array of secure Internet devices, including secured desktops, laptops, PDAs and smart phones.

But skeptics wonder if private contractors will be as disciplined as Army personnel if there’s a cloud service outage on a project deemed "non-critical" by the cloud provider. For example, at an Army location a commander can simply order staff members to go into maximum overdrive to neutralize a crisis situation. 

But when applications reside in a private sector-managed cloud, priorities on system fixes are in part decided by someone who doesn't wear the Army uniform and who may have other plans for the evening.

Skeptics also wonder if heavy reliance on the cloud will lead to "Vista-Syndrome." For example, before Windows 7 was released most Microsoft users wisely avoided upgrading to Vista because of its reputation as an often incompatible, resource hog. Most organizations and businesses voted against the operating system. 

But with cloud computing, the vote of the average user, and the votes of thousands of Army personnel, will no longer count. Instead, all those votes will be usurped by a handful of IT directors who work at a handful of cloud computing centers. Skeptics ask: Does the entire Army really want to relinquish its vote about which applications fly, and which die, to a handful of future, all-powerful, gatekeepers of the cloud?

Another concern is the potential of getting trapped in service with a particular cloud provider. The happy smiles and warm handshakes may vanish the day the Army may try to tell one of its private sector cloud providers,  "We’ve decided to move on."

Security concerns

And of course, there are security concerns.  “I’ll take the extra time to patch my enterprise’s servers if it means keeping my data close,” said Kai Axford, a national manager at Accretive Solutions, a computer security firm.

Alexandru Caitlin Cosoi, chief security researcher at BitDefender, said, “They must not forget the need for security, especially now, when data resides somewhere else besides their headquarters. Data encryption, security checks, granting access to data based on different security levels, intrusion-prevention systems and event correlation are all techniques and/or tools that they need to secure the cloud.”

Ultimately, the wisdom of the Army’s decision to push the cloud will hinge, to a significant degree, on the trustworthiness of its private contractors, industry analysts say. The time, labor and cost savings associated with a move – or even a partial move – to the cloud can be extremely substantial proposition.  But the Army will need to know from the first that if things get tricky, its cloud providers will have its back.

About the Author

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan.

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