Pentagon, Adobe offer competing options for online collaboration

By federal IT standards, Defense Connect Online, DoD’s online meeting service, has been a blockbuster success. Too successful, it turns out. There are so many Defense employees using it on a daily basis that the Defense Information Systems Agency has come to view its licensing costs as unaffordable, so it’s jettisoning DCO in favor of an open source platform.

DISA and Adobe — the vendor behind DCO — both insist they don’t view themselves as in competition with one another for the existing customer base of DoD users once the service officially reaches its end-of-life this summer.

But Adobe clearly believes that DCO’s officially-sanctioned successor, Defense Collaboration Services (DCS), will leave many of those users unsatisfied. So without the Pentagon’s official blessing, the company is building a new version, “DCO ii,” and trying to sell it directly to individual Defense commands and agencies.

“We’re going to continue to innovate with online collaboration technologies, supporting mobile devices, support for rich data analytics, and most importantly new options for commercial cloud technologies,” John Landwehr, the company’s public sector CTO said in an interview.

In heavily promoted webinars heralding the launch of DCO ii, Adobe tells DoD end users that they should feel free to migrate to DISA’s new DCS offering if it happens to meet their needs, while also whispering that the government’s collaboration solution is based on requirements from 2007, is missing certain features like an integrated mobile app, and can only support 250 users in a conference at one time.

But Karl Kurz, DISA’s program manager for DCS, said some of the side-by-side comparisons Adobe is circulating are misleading.

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He contended many of the company’s claims are based solely on the open-source BigBlueButton project, which DISA used as the foundation for DCS, and that they don’t take into account the customizations the agency built into the final product, which officially launched on Jan. 30.

For example, he said DISA has successfully tested the service to host as many as 500 attendees at a time — as long as most of them have their microphones disabled.

“DCS is a combination of things, including the BigBlueButton application, and it’s been tweaked to meet DoD requirements, including security,” Kurz said. “We’ve added a lot of other things. It has a simplified user interface so it’s easy to use, and as a result of not having to pay those licensing costs, it’s much cheaper to run on a daily basis.”

DCO has been up and running in DISA data centers since 2007. But usage began to explode over the past few years as agencies clamped down on travel budgets and online meetings became the preferred alternative.

There are roughly 1.2 million users now, and at times, DISA has had to scramble to build additional IT infrastructure in order to keep up with the growth. It’s also had to buy an ever-increasing number of licenses from Adobe in order to offer the service for free to the rest of the Defense Department.

“We were spending approximately $40 million annually for DCO, and that’s at the current level of usage,” Kurz said. “That was expected to continue to escalate as usage continued to increase. We expect that DCS will save us on the order of $12 million or more per year.”

Adobe is marketing its forthcoming go-it-alone version of DCO as having all the features of the original version “and more,” but it will also carry some significant limitations.

As of now, the system can’t use DoD’s common access cards for two-factor authentication, though Adobe promises that feature is coming.

And without DISA sponsorship, it won’t be able to offer an enterprisewide version for secret-level communications. The company says it will be happy to explore the idea of one-off DCO enclaves within the walls of individual units for classified communications if their commanders are willing to sponsor and pay for them, but Adobe declined to discuss pricing or licensing terms for such an arrangement, or indeed, for any other aspect of DCO ii.

DCO ii seeks FedRAMP

DCS, on the other hand, is free to use for anyone within DoD, and can handle secret-level communications as-is.

On the infrastructure front, while DISA is building DCS in its MilCloud environment, Adobe has opted to host DCO ii in Amazon’s GovCloud, the only commercial cloud provider thus far to get a DISA provisional authorization to handle data up to classification “level 5” — one rung below secret.

In addition to hosting its software-as-a-service offering in the already- approved Amazon cloud, Adobe also will need security authorizations for DCO ii itself before the product can be used in a meaningful way on government networks.

Landwehr said the company is in the process of seeking that authorization through the FedRAMP process and DoD’s recently-introduced FedRAMP-plus arrangement, which is managed by DISA.

“We’re using a government sponsor, third party auditors, all of that, and we’ll hopefully finalize [the FedRAMP] process soon,” he said. “There are other security extensions that many within the community require, and those are being pursued as well.”

For DISA’s part, the agency says it has no qualms with Adobe’s plans.

“We don’t think we’re in competition,” said Alfred Rivera, the director of DISA’s development and business center. “But we think we’re meeting the Joint Staff’s requirements for collaboration and interoperability [with DCS], and that’s where our focus is. It’s not on the DCO ii product.”

And if there are some features lacking in DCS, that may be because DISA views it as a bridging strategy toward what the agency views as the eventual nirvana of electronic communications: “Unified Capabilities,” or UC — a framework in which the agency imagines DoD’s voice, video, chat and other collaboration tools being fused into a single platform that also supports mobile devices.

But as of now, DISA still is in market research mode, and there are no active industry solicitations to construct a UC system. And so far, DISA officials say they do not have a specific timeline in mind as to when they might publish one.


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