DISA embraces new role as DoD's sole provider of big data centers

Wednesday - 9/4/2013, 5:41am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

Download mp3

The Defense Department is just beginning a huge project designed to move a massive chunk of the military's widely-dispersed and widely-varied stateside computing capacity into a relative handful of mega data centers across the country. It's a project the Pentagon plans to finish within five years.

A July memo from DoD's chief information officer designated the Defense Information Systems Agency as the one and only provider of "core data centers" (CDCs). There are, for now, eight such centers, all of which are preexisting Defense Enterprise Computing Centers (DECCs) operated by DISA.

The intent, officials say, is to remove as much IT as possible from individual military posts around the continental U.S. and migrate it into a central cloud structure that's easier to supervise, secure and maintain.

"There is a big effort underway right now to look at all the computing that is out there in the services, and if it's a local requirement that's used on the installation and not externally, it can go into what's called an installation processing node — they'll have small capabilities with certain limitations," said Dave Bennett, who wears two hats as DISA's chief information officer and its director of enterprise services. "Other than that, the applications that are used broadly or outside the installation, they're moving to a core data center. And that's to be done by fiscal 2018."

Bennett, who spoke at the agency's recent forecast to industry, said the CDC plan will serve as DoD's overall response to the Office of Management and Budget's Federal Data Center Consolidation (FDCC) initiative and will form the backbone of DoD's future Joint Information Environment.

Challenges to overcome

But to bring so much disparate IT under one virtual roof will require DISA to cross some high hurdles: The centers will need to be highly secure, have virtually no downtime, be able to send and receive massive amounts of data around the country, and enforce a set of technology standards across the entire DoD enterprise.

But standards, Bennett said, are a good thing.

"You can drive what the virtual operating environments are going to look like. You can drive what the security architecture's going to look like. You can drive what the communications architecture's going to look like," he said. "As an application developer, you don't have to guess what the world's going to look like. You're going to understand these things, and as we drive more and more to virtualized environments, your rates will go down."

The Defense Department believes the core data center structure will let it significantly shrink the number of dollars the military services and agencies are using on wasted or underutilized IT infrastructure. In part, Bennett said, that's because everything DISA runs in the CDCs, from storage to computing capacity to bandwidth, will be paid for on a model that uses capacity services contracts with vendors.

"We can scale up or scale down as the requirements drive us," he said. "If you have a capability today that's supporting 10,000 users and tomorrow it needs to support 50,000, we can very quickly turn that up as you need it. And as the demand goes away, we can scale it back down so that I don't have to invest in buying boxes that just sit on the floor. The contract provides it. I just tell the vendor to fire up some more boxes or to scale it down. And then I don't have to worry about sustaining that capability over the long term."

Lots of work still to be done

But with so many of the military's IT eggs in so few baskets, Bennett said the centers will need to have gold-plated cybersecurity measures in place. They also can't afford to let a center go dark because of a power outage or a technical glitch.

"We're investing huge amounts of money to make sure we have full redundancy throughout those data centers," he said. "Power, HVAC, floor space, racks, redundant power feeds and communications off of different nodes, it's all a highly fault-tolerant environment. It's been a massive undertaking, and it's still going on."

As of today, Bennett acknowledges DISA still has some work to do when it comes to being able to respond to requests for service from the military services in a rapid fashion. But going forward, he said delivering capability quickly will depend a lot on defense components' willingness to adhere to the standardized technology the core data centers will run on.