U.S. spy agencies adopt new IT approach

The CIA, for instance, is moving toward the cloud with the help of Amazon

The CIA's decision to use Amazon's cloud is part of a broader IT shake-up to make the spy business more efficient.

The move is being overseen by Al Tarasiuk, who serves as the CIO of the Intelligence Community, part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). That office, created in 2005, leads integration efforts among the government's 17 intelligence agencies.

In the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress increased funding for intelligence. But that may have worked against IT integration efforts. By 2012, it was clear Congress was pulling back on its spending.

"It was a big crisis that we had to take advantage of," said Tarasiuk.

What emerged was a plan among the intelligence agencies to move to common IT architectures -- shared services including use of cloud and improved data sharing.

"This is a shift from owning (IT resources) and server hugging to trusting a colleague agency as a service provider to manage that," said Tarasiuk, who spoke at Computerworld's Premier 100 Conference in Tucson, Ariz., this week. "That's the big change here."

Another big change in the coming infrastructure makeover is this: Instead of hiring a large outside prime contractor to "to do this all for you," the intelligence agencies spread the work among themselves, said Tarasiuk.

"Each one of us is buying from the same vendors, we have the same system integrators for the most part, and we are all paying these enormous labor rates across the board for doing the same thing," said Tarasiuk.

The intelligence agencies weren't happy with that status quo. Most of their IT budgets were spent on running the systems they had, with little left over for innovation. "We had very little for new investment," said Tarasiuk.

Although he knew that the dollars would go a lot further with shared services, there was never the leadership backing for it, he said. But once budgets became constrained, leadership warm to the idea.

The DNI committee leading the change, which includes all the intelligence agencies, initially aimed at developing a shared services plan that could cut IT spending by 50%. That figure proved too ambitious, Tarasiuk said, so a plan emerged that could reduce IT cost by 25% -- and still provide funding for innovative projects. The effort, known as Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise, or ICITE, represented a different way of delivering IT services.

Instead of tapping the expertise of contractors, the committee looked across the intelligence community to see who had the most expertise in certain areas, said Tarasiuk and then tapped specific agencies for specific tasksi.

The Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency had the most experience in thin desktop client architecture, so they were put in charge of developing a desktop architecture for all the agencies. The National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA had done the most sophisticated work involving cloud and virtualization, so they were asked to be service providers. And because NSA had done a lot work turning applications into widgets, it also took on the job of creating an application mall.

The DNI also wanted to improve information sharing and collaboration among analysts at various agencies. The data was too often "locked down" inside these agencies -- in some cases, because of the technology in use, and in other instances, because of the data formats. That, too, had to change, said Tarasiuk.

"The only chance we have to protect information in this new age is to actually protect the data itself," said Tarasiuk. Agencies now have, for the first time, enterprise access and control capability on that data.

Security concerns about any move toward the cloud made some nervous, said Tarasiuk.

"We wanted to bring in an Internet-scale capability that was already in place, that was tested and proven," said Tarasiuk. "Not just because of the efficiencies it would bring, but also the innovation it would bring. We struggled to bring in innovation. We tried all different ways. We thought this would be a great way to do it."

After bids for cloud services were sought, Amazon was chosen for the job. But what it's building is separate from Amazon's existing commercial cloud operation; in this case, Amazon's cloud services for the agencies will run in a protected government facility.

But Amazon "is going to run this thing," said Tarasiuk.

As part of the deal with Amazon, "when they develop new services for the commercial market, we want those services to become available to us," he said, noting that the initial operating capability will be available in July.

Tarasiuk said the new approach is expected to improve the efficiency and the security of intelligence-gathering efforts. With common desktops and collaboration suites, they are able to connect thousands of employees "in a way they have never been connected before."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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