Navy is moving its email to the cloud – only questions are how and when

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wfedstaff | April 17, 2015 9:24 pm

Navy officials say it’s a foregone conclusion that they will eventually migrate their email services to the cloud. The big questions are how, when and what type of cloud services they’ll use.

A pilot project the Navy launched in October using Microsoft Office 365 will attempt to offer some answers, and if all goes according to plan, it also will close a longstanding gap in the Navy’s existing IT capabilities.

The target population involves 45,000 Navy reservists who are held to roughly the same training requirements as the active duty force. But the reservists can’t access the Navy’s networks unless they’re physically present at a Navy facility, and 65 percent of those sailors live more than two hours away from the closest one.

If officials succeed in integrating Office 365, the cloud version of the ubiquitous office suite, the pilot users should be able to access their email and other portions of the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) from just about any computer by September of next year.

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“The mobility solution is absolutely key to letting them do their duties more efficiently, but because of our security requirements around the network, that access is very limited right now,” Victor Gavin, the Navy’s program executive officer for enterprise information systems said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “There are a few things they can do now, but they can’t do the full suite of training without direct access to the network.”

The Navy is buying its Microsoft services from Dell via the General Services Administration’s blanket purchase agreement for email-as-a-service. Under an order that could be worth up to $2.9 million over three years, assuming the Navy exercises all of its options, Dell will be in charge of building a private cloud for the Navy using vendor-owned equipment.

“I think there are several things we’re going to learn from this pilot,” Gavin said. “We’re going to figure out the ease with which we can integrate our unique requirements with commercial products, and it’s also going to teach us how to buy cloud services. The Defense Department is used to buying ships and planes, things we can touch and hold. We’re not used to buying IT services from industry. We also need to learn how to transition from our current product-based environment to a service-based environment in a way that’s transparent to our users.”

Other DoD options cost more

The Navy also needs concrete answers about how much it costs to graft DoD’s security requirements onto a commercial cloud product.

After an analysis of alternatives, the Navy Reserve Force settled on Office 365 because officials determined that the Microsoft product gave them offsite email access with the most capabilities at the lowest price.

The analysis concluded that signing up for the Defense Information Systems Agency’s existing enterprise email service would cost $55 million over five years, and that DISA’s offering can’t currently integrate with many of the existing services the Navy provides through NMCI. Extending NMCI’s own services to remotely-located reservists via virtual desktops also is an option, but the reserve command estimated that alternative would cost $286 million.

But Gavin cautioned that any figures the Navy has calculated so far are just estimates. No one actually knows how much work will be involved in lashing up Microsoft’s cloud with NMCI, because so far, no one has tried to integrate a purely commercial cloud email offering with DoD’s security infrastructure.

The Navy is confident that it can overcome any technological hurdles for the immediate purpose of serving up email to its reservists during the pilot, but it’s not sure how much it will cost to integrate DoD’s security requirements, including the need to authenticate to DoD networks via common access cards.

“The commercial seats we’re buying don’t come with all the security requirements we have on our network,” Gavin said. “The primary purpose of the pilot is to start with the commercial price, add in what we need to do for security, and then make a fact-based business decision based on the results. I really can’t say right now whether NMCI or DISA is more or less expensive than an Office 365 suite that’s properly secured. The results of the pilot will bear that out.”

The Navy’s email project is one of several pilot programs the DoD chief information office has greenlighted in an ongoing effort to decide how commercial cloud products might be able to mesh with the Pentagon’s security needs.

New door for industry to sell through

And just so that it could keep running its own email services for the rest of the Navy under NMCI — let alone run a new pilot program — the Navy needed another permission slip from the DoD CIO.

Last September, then-CIO Teri Takai ordered all of the military services to begin migrating to DISA’s enterprise email service. But a Navy business case analysis asserted that the DISA service would cost the Navy and Marine Corps more than what they’re already spending for email.

That analysis paved the way for a waiver that let the Navy and Marine Corps deviate from DoD policy. The waiver was signed in June by Terry Halvorsen, who became the acting DoD CIO a few weeks earlier, after having served for several years as the Navy Department’s CIO.

“Our business case analysis showed that the DISA product compared to what we already have are essentially equal, but the Navy email is cheaper,” Gavin said. “But if you fast forward to where we are today, all of these efforts to take email to the cloud are happening in parallel. We’re working very closely with DISA, they’re working in the same area, and it’s all a natural progression of where email is going. Once we get done with this, I suspect that there’s going to be another business case analysis that tries to determine what’s the best way forward for email within the Defense Department.”

Beyond the Microsoft pilot, the Navy also has started a pilot program using Google Apps for Government as part of a newly-launched project that PEO-EIS has dubbed its “innovation cell.”

PEO-EIS created the cell, in part, as a response to industry complaints that that the only way to sell IT to the Navy was to route them through Hewlett Packard, the vendor which used to own the Navy’s networks and still operates them under the new Next Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN) contract.

The cell is meant to serve as a more direct gateway into the Navy’s IT procurement process, and PEO-EIS is planning an industry day to offer a more detailed explanation in the coming months.

“What we realized is that we have to create a fair and competitive environment where different offerors can bring their components in and be evaluated in our environment,” Gavin said. “This is the kind of thing we’re trying to achieve. We need rapid infusions of technologies as well as assisting our learning of industry’s capabilities.”

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