DISA offers 'off-ramps' for military services' IT expenses

Wednesday - 10/17/2012, 5:51am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Defense Information Systems Agency is casting itself as an "off-ramp" for some of the costly technology functions the military services currently operate on their own. The agency's director thinks it's an attractive pitch as the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are pressed to take money out of their IT budgets and redirect it to the basic tasks of training and equipping warfighters.

Lower costs aren't the only virtue the military sees in DoDwide IT services offered at the enterprise level. Leaders also expect to see gains through better situational awareness over their networks and making them more defensible against cyber attackers.

But from the perspective of Lt. Gen. Ronnie Hawkins, DISA's director, there's no forcing function quite like declining budgets: the abundant cash the military services used to have on hand to build and operate their own IT systems simply isn't there anymore.

"This issue with the money right now has helped push people together that weren't together before in the Department of Defense," he said. "Talk about joint. We're joint now."

There are billions of dollars to be saved though the consolidation of information technology services into DoD enterprise offerings under the DISA umbrella, Hawkins told the annual Air Force IT day last week hosted by AFCEA's Northern Virginia chapter.

Meeting of the minds

And there's a historical precedent for DISA and its predecessor agencies taking over the legwork that used to be handled by the military branches, he said.

"Back in the '70s and '80s, we took [military communications] off the map. You don't even worry about dial tone anymore, you pick up your phone and you know it's there. This agency that I'm now part of took that off the table," he said. "We want to do the same thing with IT. We want to take it off your table. Give it to us, and we will deliver those types of capabilities for you."

Lt. Gen. Ronnie Hawkins, director, DISA

Last week, Hawkins and the chief information officers from each of the military services conferred to discuss who should do what along the way to the shared services environment DoD pictures in its multiyear pursuit of a concept known as the Joint Information Environment.

He said he and the service CIOs are actively discussing how they can "off-ramp" their IT functions to DISA, which is already moving forward with enterprise services like email, SharePoint and portal services that are designed to serve only the users that need them and scale-up as more military organizations come on board. The continuing struggle, Hawkins said, is how to offer those services at price points that military organizations can't say no to.

"I used to sit in the Air Force and say that DISA was too expensive. I said, 'I wish I was over there and I'd show those guys how to do it.' Now I am over there," he said. "So we're working with the services to make sure we can find out where it is that we're a loss-leader for them. We're either going to clean that up or we're going to hand that over to the services to do. This is the number one issue I'm working within DISA. We have to make sure we're competitive when it comes to the services we provide to our users, whomever that might be."

Proven case for enterprise email

There is some obvious low-hanging fruit when it comes to running DoD's IT systems more efficiently though, Hawkins said. For instance, there are the Web portal systems various military organizations operate so that their users can sign in and access software applications. He said far too many of those systems are running on individual military posts, often duplicating one another's functions.

"It's 'box-ology,' and the attitude is we're going to protect the box and keep it at our particular base, rather than rolling it up to the enterprise and making it available to everybody once," he said. "We talk about enterprise licensing. That's another service we ought to be able to put up at the enterprise so everyone can use it. We ought to be able to meter our access to capabilities rather than paying for every single user to use them. We know right now that on desktops there are software capabilities we're paying for that just sit there unused year in and year out. We've got to provide that through a portal so you can get into it, use it, close it up and get out."

Hawkins said enterprise email, the first of DISA's large enterprise offerings, is a proven test case for cost savings. The Army estimates it will save more than $70 million next year by letting DISA take over its email service.

Likewise, DISA thinks it can save the military services a lot of money by letting them shut down legacy communications systems like point-to-point videoconferencing and transitioning them to secure Internet protocol networks accessible around the globe.

"That's the killer app when we look at everything-over-IP and start getting eliminating the VTC circuits that are on every base out there," he said. "We ought to be able to stream that video right down to an end device, just like everybody else is doing right now, and make that capability available to every one of our warfighters wherever he or she might be."

While Hawkins still is sorting through precisely which IT services his agency will provide and which military services it will provide them to, the Defense Department already has vested DISA with some specific responsibilities for enterprise services.

For instance, DISA will act as the military's central broker for cloud computing services. Hawkins said the brokerage service will reach initial operating capability by the end of this year and full operating capability by early 2015.

DISA has yet to spell out precisely how the broker arrangement will work and has issued a request for information to help find the way forward. Hawkins said the agency will need some time to figure out the new role.

Cloud market to grow

Some commercial vendors who hope to sell cloud services to the department have suggested the agency may have an inherent conflict of interest, since DISA is trying to create market-competitive cloud offerings of its own for DoD customers and simultaneously acting as a go-between for commercial companies who want to provide many of the same services.

But Hawkins said DISA won't try to use its broker position to corner the market for DoD cloud services.

"We have to make sure we're not the fox guarding the henhouse," he said. "It's not all going to go into a DISA (Defense Enterprise Computing Center). Much of it, and I can't tell you exactly how much, is going to go into the separate services' data centers. But we've got to first standardize the data centers, and that's what we're doing right now."

The standardization is happing under the auspices of a new DoDwide data center reference architecture that DoD chief information officer Teri Takai signed last week, Hawkins said.

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