DISA embraces new role as DoD’s sole provider of big data centers

The Defense Information Systems Agency believes it can save the military services big bucks on data storage, processing and communications by becoming a one-sto...

The Defense Department is just beginning a huge project designed to move a massive chunk of the military’s widely-dispersed and widely-varied stateside computing capacity into a relative handful of mega data centers across the country. It’s a project the Pentagon plans to finish within five years.

A July memo from DoD’s chief information officer designated the Defense Information Systems Agency as the one and only provider of “core data centers” (CDCs). There are, for now, eight such centers, all of which are preexisting Defense Enterprise Computing Centers (DECCs) operated by DISA.

The intent, officials say, is to remove as much IT as possible from individual military posts around the continental U.S. and migrate it into a central cloud structure that’s easier to supervise, secure and maintain.

“There is a big effort underway right now to look at all the computing that is out there in the services, and if it’s a local requirement that’s used on the installation and not externally, it can go into what’s called an installation processing node — they’ll have small capabilities with certain limitations,” said Dave Bennett, who wears two hats as DISA’s chief information officer and its director of enterprise services. “Other than that, the applications that are used broadly or outside the installation, they’re moving to a core data center. And that’s to be done by fiscal 2018.”

Bennett, who spoke at the agency’s recent forecast to industry, said the CDC plan will serve as DoD’s overall response to the Office of Management and Budget’s Federal Data Center Consolidation (FDCC) initiative and will form the backbone of DoD’s future Joint Information Environment.

Challenges to overcome

But to bring so much disparate IT under one virtual roof will require DISA to cross some high hurdles: The centers will need to be highly secure, have virtually no downtime, be able to send and receive massive amounts of data around the country, and enforce a set of technology standards across the entire DoD enterprise.

But standards, Bennett said, are a good thing.

“You can drive what the virtual operating environments are going to look like. You can drive what the security architecture’s going to look like. You can drive what the communications architecture’s going to look like,” he said. “As an application developer, you don’t have to guess what the world’s going to look like. You’re going to understand these things, and as we drive more and more to virtualized environments, your rates will go down.”

The Defense Department believes the core data center structure will let it significantly shrink the number of dollars the military services and agencies are using on wasted or underutilized IT infrastructure. In part, Bennett said, that’s because everything DISA runs in the CDCs, from storage to computing capacity to bandwidth, will be paid for on a model that uses capacity services contracts with vendors.

“We can scale up or scale down as the requirements drive us,” he said. “If you have a capability today that’s supporting 10,000 users and tomorrow it needs to support 50,000, we can very quickly turn that up as you need it. And as the demand goes away, we can scale it back down so that I don’t have to invest in buying boxes that just sit on the floor. The contract provides it. I just tell the vendor to fire up some more boxes or to scale it down. And then I don’t have to worry about sustaining that capability over the long term.”

Lots of work still to be done

But with so many of the military’s IT eggs in so few baskets, Bennett said the centers will need to have gold-plated cybersecurity measures in place. They also can’t afford to let a center go dark because of a power outage or a technical glitch.

“We’re investing huge amounts of money to make sure we have full redundancy throughout those data centers,” he said. “Power, HVAC, floor space, racks, redundant power feeds and communications off of different nodes, it’s all a highly fault-tolerant environment. It’s been a massive undertaking, and it’s still going on.”

As of today, Bennett acknowledges DISA still has some work to do when it comes to being able to respond to requests for service from the military services in a rapid fashion. But going forward, he said delivering capability quickly will depend a lot on defense components’ willingness to adhere to the standardized technology the core data centers will run on.

“There’s no magic pill that gets you there. Everybody’s coming to the game with a different level of maturity,” he said. “If you start from scratch and you’re developing something new, we can put you in a virtualized environment almost overnight. But if you’re coming to us with an old COBOL program that hasn’t changed in a hundred years, the reality is we’re going to have to look at that and figure out what the infrastructure needs to look like to support that. It’s those things that really drive how long it takes us to provide a capability to a customer.”

In line with OMB’s mandates, the military services and agencies already are in various stages of their own data center consolidation efforts, each of which are already required to get prior approval from the DoD CIO before obligating funds to building or expand data centers.

Hundreds of closures already

DoD has made some progress in consolidating data centers. A Congressional Research Service report from April 2013 found DoD has 772 data centers, with the Army (250 total data centers) and the Air Force (137) having the largest number overall.

The Pentagon plans to reduce the number of its data centers by about 30 percent by 2013 and the number of servers by 25 percent, CRS reported.

DISA already reduced the number of DECCs to 14 from 50.

According to Data.gov, DoD said it closed 266 data centers between Feb. 26, 2010, and July 26, 2013. The military says it will close another 194 by Sept. 30, 2013, and another 129 by Sept. 30, 2014.

But going forward, Bennett said the services won’t have much of an argument to keep running enterprise-level data centers of their own. If a computing capability is needed in more than one physical location, it’ll need to move to a CDC, he said.

“There will be an annual review of computing requirements, and if the demand for core capability expands beyond this initial set of sites, there will be sort of a runoff that decides where we add a new data center,” he said. “But the memo says if a site is chosen, that data center becomes a DISA asset. The point is that DISA is the only provider of core data centers. The question going forward is the service components’ plans to migrate their data into installation processing nodes that are for local use only, and if it doesn’t meet that criteria, how they’ll migrate into a core data center. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there, and it’s really driving the services to create a strategy for how they intend to comply with the direction.”


New strategy establishes DoD-wide enterprise cloud environment

DoD to save $3B with data center consolidation

Budget shortfalls driving CIOs’ priorities

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