Pentagon looks abroad for shared IT solutions

For the past four years, the Defense Department has devoted considerable attention toward getting its military branches onto a common IT architecture via the Joint Information Environment, hoping to improve security and cut costs. DoD is now turning its attention to its relationships with allied nations for exactly the same reasons.

Two weeks from now, DoD’s chief information officer and his counterparts from several friendly nations will meet in the United Kingdom for the latest in a series of meetings that have been ongoing for the past year. The sessions revolve around making each country’s systems more interoperable on a day-to-day basis and sharing lessons from one another’s approach to common issues like cloud computing security and multifactor authentication.

“We have an incredible opportunity here,” said Terry Halvorsen, DoD’s CIO. “We’re all looking at similar solutions, and I think you will find that many of our allies are going to be on common platforms with common operating systems and common standards across the board, for everything from cloud to office systems to data center structure. If we can get there, it gives us an unbelievable warfare advantage. It also gives us an unbelievable business opportunity to better embrace commercial technology.”

The international CIO talks come amid growing demands by the U.S. military’s combatant commanders for a more tailorable IT infrastructure that would let trusted allies connect to one another’s IT systems without sharing every bit of data contained within one other’s networks. DoD has been working on such a project — the Mission Partner Environment — for more than three years. But each of the four-star commanders signed a recent letter to Halvorsen saying the current implementation of MPE was inadequate.

The commanders’ demands are a tall order: They call for a seamless integration of different countries’ IT systems, allowing certain intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, for example, to move freely between key allies on a constant basis. Such a system would also need to give one-off coalition members participating in a given conflict the ability to plug into the network in a way that selectively shares certain information with certain countries.

“We have to do it in such a way that everybody’s data that needs to be separated is protected, but all the people who need to see it can see it when they need to. That’s the panacea,” Halvorsen said. “But I think we’re on a path to deliver that within the next three to five years.”

The “five eyes” nations  who will participate in the May meeting — the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom — have already agreed to take on different leadership roles in various technology areas.

Australia, for example, is leading the charge for a shared approach to identity management, one that Halvorsen said could eventually replace the Common Access Cards the U.S. military currently uses for two-factor authentication.

“We have to get away from the CAC card,” Halvorsen said. “We’re not going to kill it tomorrow. It’s still a very valuable and much more secure way for us to do business compared to usernames and passwords. But the Australians were ahead in some of those areas, so we’re looking together at ways to improve our security over the next three to five years in ways that also allow our identity systems to be interoperable with as many allies as we can partner with.”

Canada, meanwhile, is in charge of rethinking the way the allies approach data centers with an eye toward reducing the amount of data that’s stored and processed in large, fixed facilities. Considering the plummeting costs and increasing computing power of microprocessors that can be deployed to tactical units, the allies are increasingly focused on technologies that can chew on data at its point of origin instead of relying on sometimes-unreliable network connections to send those packets on round trips across the globe.

For its part, the U.K. is proving out cloud technologies that might be applicable to other Western militaries. That nation’s Ministry of Defence is building a private cloud to host the largest instance of Microsoft’s Office 365 ever to be deployed, at more than 425,000 users, in collaboration with Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Meg Whitman, the CEO of HP Enterprise, said the system, which will also serve U.K. civilian agencies, is expected to be up and running by next month.

“Deploying at this scale is reasonably challenging,” she said. “It’s never been done before. Some of the parts of Office 365 are being finished at just about the same time they’re going into deployment for the MoD. We’re also having to contend with the authority to operate procedures that exist in the military. It’s not necessarily congruent with this generation of technology and software as a service.”

Halvorsen said DoD is watching the U.K.’s Office 365 project extremely closely, particularly with respect to its on-premises deployment model that lets commercial vendors operate cloud services on government property, a notion the U.S. military has only begun to explore.

“I think that’s the right way for us to go,” he said. “We have people supporting the MoD in their project, and we’re looking at each other’s contracts so that we can improve the way we write our business arrangements. That trust arrangement is a big breakthrough. We’ve got to be that way across the board.”

Halvorsen said the increased trust between allied nations needs to be accompanied by trust between the global IT companies who supply hardware, software and expertise to each of those countries’ militaries.

He implored the industry audience to approach the military IT market in groupings of solutions from various companies that can work together.

“You need to be able to come in and say, ‘Look, we, as an industry, think we have the solution set that we think will work to solve your problem even though none of us can solve it independently: Here’s the best of breed,’” Halvorsen said. “I know that’s hard, because business is a win-or-lose world. I get it, but we have to get past that. We have to have a different level of dialogue if we’re going to keep the U.S. and our allies at the forefront of technology.”

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