DoD Cloud Exchange: Renata Spinks on USMC’s acceleration to the cloud

When the pandemic struck, the Marine Corps put pedal to medal and accelerated its shift from on-premises to cloud operations. We get the details from the corps...

One of the Defense Department’s biggest challenges in moving to the cloud over the past decade has been the simple fact that military networks were largely designed to talk to themselves. As for the public internet, where the cloud actually exists — much less so.

The coronavirus relief bill helped solve that problem for much of DoD, with billions of dollars in new funding to enable telework. But the Marine Corps, by that point, was already pretty well ahead of the curve.

Renata Spinks, assistant director for command, control, communications, computers and information (C4I) and senior information security officer, said her service had almost completely funded a plan to converge its dozens of IT enclaves into a single network and forge a path to the cloud before the pandemic hit.

“Our acceleration to cloud started four years ago. A conversation about our enterprise infrastructure had to occur because our infrastructure was something our Marines consistently reminded the leadership that we needed to modernize, we needed to be ready. We have to get cloud-ready,” Spinks said during Federal News Network’s second annual DoD Cloud Exchange.

As a result, the Marine Corps had already done the hard work of collapsing nearly 70 enclaves into what it could credibly call the Marine Corps Enterprise Network and had laid the groundwork for that network to be cloud-compatible.

First services to fully adopt Office 365

But CARES Act funding certainly didn’t hurt. The influx of new money took the organization from a state in which its infrastructure wasn’t just physically prepared to consume cloud services but could also fund its users’ transition to the cloud, including the first of DoD’s servicewide rollouts of Microsoft Office 365.

Even so, Spinks is quick to say that “transition is something we don’t talk enough about. We talk about current states and future states but rarely do you hear anyone talk about steady state. And it’s one of the most costly phases of your deployment or release plan. We had some of the Marine Corps still using on-premises and consuming services within the Marine Corps data centers in Kansas City. We had the contracts in place, but the funding wasn’t there. So the CARES Act was just in time.”

The service solved those underlying network modernization challenges, making it easier to send and receive email but also enabling the transfer of large business and warfighting systems to the cloud.

Determined to push the cloud envelope

To tackle this effort, the Marines, being Marines, organized themselves into task forces and subordinate task groups, Spinks recalled. The general idea is to assemble all of the people who would normally be in a position to say “no” to a particular migration for one reason or another into a single group, hash out any differences and then empower relatively junior officers and NCOs to figure out the details.

“The task force approach has cross-functional teams, from majors to enlisted Marines and civilians — from every stakeholder that you can think of,” Spinks said. “There was no longer a silo saying, ‘Well, I don’t know what this other organization is doing.’ Instead, the conversation started to be about who’s the point of contact for Task Force Phoenix, or who’s the point of contact for Task Force Network Modernization, who could then say, ‘Here’s what’s happening.’ The task force allows you to adopt an agile mindset and the ability to fund in that manner.”

A further benefit? The agile approach delivers value incrementally, which is more effective than spending years to complete a project only to discover the technology has become outdated, she said.

Layering in agility across USMC

The Marines have launched an agile approach to software development too. It began with the Marine Corps Business Operations Support Services (MCBOSS) delivery, security and operations (DevSecOps) pipeline, patterned in many ways after the Air Force’s Kessel Run and Platform One projects.

But Spinks said the corps is also actively availing itself of other software factories that have sprung up across the military services, understanding that it needs to be agile enough to develop new applications to deal with anything from another pandemic to the next hurricane or humanitarian response.

“The Marines do not want to do anything all by themselves. We are a team-of-teams institution. Every platform is different, and none of them are one-size-fits-all. If there’s a capability or a gap, the first thing we do is go see who else has this and what does ‘right’ look like,” Spinks said. “When we’re supporting many types of unanticipated actions, the ability to customize and develop apps at the ready is what MCBOSS is about. And the next step is [cyber] reciprocity to take advantage of other platforms that exist. Much like our one network, these things are complementary to each other.”

To listen to and watch all the sessions from the 2022 Federal News Network DoD Cloud Exchange, go to the event page.

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