Pentagon backs off cloud availability claims

U.S. Defense Department clarifies: we've got four nines of availability, not five; still beats Google and other commercial offerings

Days after claiming 99.999% availability for its new cloud computing service, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman says he misspoke and meant to say the agency is achieving 99.99% availability instead.

At issue is the stability and reliability of the Defense Department's cloud computing service, which is called RACE for Rapid Access Computing Environment.

The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) operates RACE using HP blade servers, VMware software and either Microsoft Windows or Red Hat Linux operating environments. DISA charges a monthly fee to military users to run their applications on the virtual servers provided by the RACE platform.

On Oct. 3, DISA announced that the year-old RACE service would support production applications. Until now, RACE has been available for test and development of new applications, but not for operations.

As part of that announcement, a DISA spokesman said RACE is achieving 99.999% availability. Now this spokesman says he meant to say 99.99% availability.

"I think I stuttered midway through the sentence when we were talking about availability," admits Henry Sienkiewicz, Technical Program Director of DISA's Computing Services and RACE Team. "Our target performance is four nines, and we try to adhere to that using the normal processes, [service-level agreements] and the same type of reliability upon which our customers have depended in the past."

The difference between the two availability claims for RACE is significant.

A system that has so-called "five nines" of availability has 5.26 minutes of downtime in a given year, while a system with "four nines" of availability has 52.6 minutes of downtime in a given year, according to Sun

Sienkiewicz says RACE will provide the same level of security and reliability that DISA's military customers have become accustomed to from traditional computing platforms.

"RACE will have a fairly limited amount of downtime," Sienkiewicz says. "We're trying to mitigate any of the outages by using data center best practices, [continuity of operations] and disaster recovery. We've taken all of those strengths straight into the cloud environment."

Sienkiewicz says most of the applications that DISA operates require 99.99% availability, rather than the more stringent "five nines" level of performance.

But Sienkiewicz emphasized that RACE will provide the same level of security as other DISA computing services.

"We're providing an exceptionally secure [cloud] environment because we built all of the [Defense Department's] best practices for information security straight into the RACE infrastructure," Sienkiewicz says. "Our customers can have the same confidence in the security of RACE as they had with any of the other [Defense Enterprise Computing Center] environments."

Even with four-nines of availability, DISA's cloud computing environment is still significantly more reliable than commercial offerings such as Google's, which has suffered from frequent service outages as recently as last month. 

Google claims 99.9% availability for Google Apps, which equals 8.76 hours of downtime per year, according to Sun.

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

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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