Pentagon: Our cloud is better than Google's

U.S. military says its cloud computing platform is more secure, reliable than commercial offerings

The U.S. Defense Department is offering cloud computing services that military officials claim are safer and more reliable than commercial providers such as Google.

At a press conference Monday, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) announced that it is allowing military users to run applications in production mode on its cloud computing platform, which is called RACE for Rapid Access Computing Environment.

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Since its launch a year ago, RACE has been available for test and development of new applications, but not for operations.

Military officials say RACE is now ready to deliver cutting-edge applications to military personnel.

Henry Sienkiewicz, technical program director of DISA's computing services and RACE team, says RACE is more secure and stable than commercial cloud services. Google, for example, has suffered from frequent service outages including high-profile Gmail and Google News outages in September.

"We have service-level agreements with all of our services for all of our applications. We're using the same method of SLA inside the RACE environment as well as our regular computing environment. We achieve 99.999% availability at all times," Sienkiewicz says.

In contrast, Google claims 99.9% availability for Google Apps.

Sienkiewicz says DISA is applying "the same rigor in availability and performance of any of our other applications such as payroll, financial systems and logistics systems. It's the exact same rigor of delivery inside our RACE environment."

DISA also is applying the same information assurance process to its cloud-based applications as it applies to applications that run on traditional computing platforms.

DISA said it has figured out a way to streamline its security accreditation process, which now lasts 40 days on average instead of 80 days. DISA was able to reduce this timeframe because it has built information assurance controls into its RACE platform.

"We had to look at multi-tenancy and how do we allow that inside the department given the information assurance concerns," Sienkiewicz says. "You normally are able to rack and stack the applications [in a cloud environment.]. What we've built into this is application separation….The department has a policy that separates applications, databases and Web servers from each other. We've taken all those pieces into account."

For its cloud-based applications, DISA conducts a full SAS 70 audit. DISA also has a strict data cleansing process in case an application is removed from the RACE platform, and the virtual server and storage media need to be wiped.

"We can give the same amount of security and credibility to the marketplace with DISA's cloud offering as with any other computing service," Sienkiewicz says. "Security is one of the things we have to keep foremost…which is significantly different than some of our contemporaries [in cloud computing.]"

DISA has been operating RACE since Oct.1, 2008; since then, hundreds of military applications including command and control systems, convoy control systems, and satellite programs have been developed and tested on its user-provisioned virtual servers.

DISA says it has cut the acquisition time for a new server from six months to 24 hours with RACE. 

"We've had a very good margin of success," Sienkiewicz says. "Our return on value is measured in a variety of ways. Are the users able to have a self-service portal? The answer to that is a resounding yes. Are they willing to have an extreme amount of standardization?...Are they willing to use government credit cards online with a portal? The answer is yes."

Now, DISA is offering these customers the option of using RACE to run the applications they've developed using the cloud-based platform. DISA's goal is to more rapidly deploy new applications to military personnel.

"Usually we make decisions better and faster than our adversaries," Sienkiewicz says. RACE "is one of those ways we're allowing software development to keep up."

DISA supports its cloud customers with VMware running on HP blade servers. Users can choose Microsoft Windows or Red Hat Linux operating environments, and they can configure their virtual servers with up to four CPUs, 8GB of memory and up to a terabyte of storage in 10G increments.

Test servers cost $500 per month, while productions servers cost $1,200 per month. The monthly fees include provisioning, 24/7 support, access to the military non-secure IP network and SLAs.

With RACE, military developers purchase virtual servers using a Web portal and a government-approved credit card. DISA guarantees a 24-hour turnaround for standing up a virtual server for the test environment and a 72-hour turnaround for the production environment.

DISA said it doesn't have any production-level customers for RACE yet because of the time it takes to get applications through its information assurance process, which involves manual review of software code.

"We're doing certification in 40 days…but we hope to get that down," Sienkiewicz says. "We're never going to completely automate that process."

Next up for DISA is making RACE available for applications that run on its secure IP backbone, which will be available in the first quarter of next year. DISA also hopes to add content delivery and enterprise resource planning tools to the RACE platform.

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