Insight By Equinix

NGA eager to take advantage of the IT revolution, evolution

Mark Andress, the chief information officer at National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said after a few bumps and stumbles, the agency has a better understanding of where cloud services fit in its IT modernization journey.

NGA Technology Overview

Evolutionary [change] involves what you think about with a normal IT system where we are at a point where we have new sensors coming out and we need to adapt to those new sensors, modern technologies in terms of resolution and more. That underpins a core technology that has been around for a long time and it needs to evolve.

Cloud Opportunities

NGA is the sponsor for the current C2S cloud at the secret level. As a sponsor, what we do…is we can sponsor you into this environment and we have created three tiers of sponsorship. One of them is if you want to work in the cloud, we will create an account for you. The second is if you need some basic security controls like identity and access management to work in the cloud. You can use my tools. I’ve already accredited them. The third is full service. A small agency just needs to put data and run workloads in the cloud. We run the whole security stack for them. We’ve done that for several agencies and it’s a growing area.

Importance of Data

These next two years we will be shifting the architectural foundation on which [these high end mission systems] live to decouple and start to devolve some of those 10 million lines of code systems into its service components. This will be one of the biggest things we move forward by taking this idea of hybrid cloud as an infrastructure, build on that platform with secure dev/ops so you can move more agilely and the third piece is how do we decouple these big systems into smaller pieces so that I can add new capabilities quicker without having to do a full end-to-end test of a 10 million line of code system.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

We decided to form up a group looking at enterprise data management. It’s not just from the chief data officer and the technologists, but we married up the content owners and we formed a group looking at enterprise data management with the sole intent of how does it scale? Not just for a sprint, but everything they are doing says here are lessons learned, but also what happens when it doesn’t scale. That whole content management piece is one of our huge lines of effort on the artificial intelligence and machine learning front.

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The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is in the middle of both a revolution and an evolution when it comes to technology.

Vice Adm. Robert Sharp, the director of NGA, signed out a new strategy in late 2019 that focused on four areas: people, partnerships, mission today and mission tomorrow.

It’s in the mission today and mission tomorrow goals where the evolution and revolution is truly happening.

“Evolutionary involves what you think about with a normal IT system where we are at a point where we have new sensors coming out and we need to adapt to those new sensors, modern technologies in terms of resolution and more. That underpins a core technology that has been around for a long time and it needs to evolve,” said Mark Andress, the chief information officer at NGA, on Ask the CIO. “Then apply on top of that, the revolutionary aspects of geospatial intelligence. Think about your iPhone or your Android or whatever mobile device you have, think about the sensor technology improvement that is happening with every release of that, and apply that on a global scale, apply that to airborne assets, apply that to our spaced-based assets and you see this step increase, not evolution, but a revolution of what that enables both in terms of precision but also what it enables in terms of volume on a global scale.”

The second piece of the revolution comes in the form of software capabilities, such as automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Andress said helping to lead the evolution and revolution makes it an exciting time for NGA.

“At NGA, we’ve created integrated program offices where we have a commitment from our director of analysis, director of source who have committed their people to be part of an integrated team. My builders sit right next to the user to enable that,” he said. “That’s a huge piece that a lot of organization fail to realize, if you don’t bring them together don’t expect the outcome to reflect that end user.”

For NGA, however, to make the evolution and revolution more than a concept, Andress is modernizing the network that many of these sensors, software tools and other technologies will run on. And, like most agencies, that starts with moving to the cloud.

He said the agency moved to the cloud aggressively starting in 2015 under the “cloud first” policy. Even with a few bumps and stumbles, Andress said the agency has a much better understanding of what is working in the cloud in terms of cost, latency and cost.

“We are applying those lessons and building out a few things that are helping out our project managers like a cloud analytics tool kit. They come in and say they’d like to do ‘x y or z’ and we say, ‘let’s look at the mission load, the data formats and decide whether it’s better served in our data center or it’s optimized in the cloud.’ There has been a lot of learning,” he said. “The other areas where NGA has been leading is the idea of computing at the edge. How do you marry up the benefit of hyperscale compute with our need, which often is unique, of getting that information out to the hills of Afghanistan to support an operation or to a mobile device to support a humanitarian assistance effort. NGA has done a lot of great working in leaning forward on how to address some of those challenges and it’s been pretty impressive.”

Over the years, NGA, like other agencies, have learned that the rush to the cloud hasn’t always made sense. Too often it can lead to unconstrained usage that turns into higher than expected costs.

Andress said getting mission owners to understand that while cloud does provide flexibility, resiliency and agility, the agency has to balance those benefits against the other factors that play into the decision to move a system or application off premise.

Over time and based on those lessons learned, NGA developed a cloud optimization assessment model.

“It’s literally something where if you come in and say you have a mission you need to perform, here’s the customer base, here’s geographically where they are…and that drives a data and compute discussion that is very complex,” Andress said.

Andress said NGA has put more than 50 percent of its systems and applications in the cloud already and expects that percentage to grow.

“We talk a lot about hybrid cloud models. It’s amazing when you start to unpack a little bit, it’s not like you have a traditional hardware stack that is now in the cloud,” he said. “I may have compute on premise and storage in the cloud, or it may be vice versa. I may have certain aspects of modular compute that is both storage and compute forward, but it may be a small cache that is periodically updated. It’s an incredibly diverse landscape.”

The move to the cloud becomes more complicated for NGA because it works in the top secret, secret and unclassified environments, while 25% of its workforce is located around the world.

“NGA is the sponsor for the current C2S cloud at the secret level. As a sponsor, what we do is we can sponsor you into this environment and we have created three tiers of sponsorship,” Andress said.  “One of them is if you want to work in the cloud, we will create an account for you. The second is if you need some basic security controls like identity and access management to work in the cloud. You can use my tools. I’ve already accredited them. The third is full service. A small agency just needs to put data and run workloads in the cloud. We run the whole security stack for them. We’ve done that for several agencies and it’s a growing area.”

He added most of the agency customers want the third option of the full service model.

“The point of the cloud opportunity is to get in and learn how to use it without being bothered with getting an authority to operate or setting up a role-based access, and take what we’ve got and evolve it into your architecture,” Andress said.

Andress said with the big C2E contract, which is the follow-on to the C2S program, will lead NGA toward a multi-cloud environment where they can optimize workloads across the on and off premise environments.

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