Intel CIOs finding common ground in shared services

Friday - 10/21/2011, 5:18am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Technology leaders in the intelligence community say the push to consolidate their IT systems is driven by budget cuts. But it's also an opportunity to turn their agencies into better intelligence gatherers.

Two days after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper announced double-digit, billion-dollar budget cuts to intelligence agencies — along with his intention to get half those savings from IT — chief information officers from across the intelligence community revealed some early details of their plan.

"The bottom line is, look, budgets are being severely cut," said Al Tarasiuk, ODNI's CIO. "Agencies are not going to have the kind of dollars they've had in the past to run the type of IT to enable missions the way they have in the past. We have to move to a new model. That's the huge driver in this, but we obviously want to propose an architecture that makes sense and works for us, and take the opportunity to do it right."

Tarasiuk spoke with other intelligence CIOs on a panel at the 2011 GEOINT, the annual intelligence conference, in San Antonio, Texas.

The "big five" intelligence agencies: CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, will lead the strategy. A month ago, they briefed their leadership on a plan to develop a common IT infrastructure across the intelligence community and create shared enterprise services in a cloud architecture. A full implementation plan is due by December.

Among the main features intel CIOs are proposing:

  • A single-designed back office and desktop architectures.

  • Consolidating infrastructures and the provisioning of central services for all intelligence agencies to use.

  • A thin-client desktop for most users in the intelligence community. "Thick," or traditional desktop PCs, will only be allowed for employees who have a bona fide need for extra computing power.

  • Cloud technologies implemented along standards that allow interoperability with other clouds

  • Collapsing of networks and "widgetizing" of existing applications
The services would be provided across all of the various secret and nonsecret classification domains the IC operates in, including for users on mobile devices, Tarasiuk said.

The changes won't happen overnight. Agencies are aiming to have their new IT architecture fully running by fiscal 2017, but some of the ingredients already are in place.

At NSA, for example, Gen. Keith Alexander, the agency's director, has ordered his CIO to move most of the agency's data to a cloud environment by the end of this year. Other CIOs say they have at least some cloud infrastructure that's generally aligned to the common architecture that intelligence agencies now envision.

Sharing makes sense

Jeanne Tisinger, the CIO at CIA, said the news of budget cuts was a tough pill for agencies to swallow at first. But she said each of the big five agencies now are on board with the effort, realizing that there are plenty of areas where sharing IT resources makes sense.

"We stepped back and we realized that there's no unique differentiator in a common desktop. There's nothing special about what CIA does there, so we're all in on that," she said. "CIA does not need to build unique applications that are not our core expertise or within our core domain. Geospatial intelligence is the best example: NGA does that, and I can leverage that as a shared service. And to flip that, it's not just about CIA divesting our technology responsibilities. It's about CIA stepping up and offering to be a principal provider of key areas of technology to other agencies."

And while moving to a shared architecture will entail quite a bit of cultural change in the intelligence community, it will also remove some huge barriers to information sharing, said Neill Tipton, director of information sharing for the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. He says that's a problem DoD sees first hand in the IC every day.

"One of the common complaints we hear from the field, from theaters that are in operations, is that all these people bring all their own networks and architectures with them," he said. "You sit at a headquarters and you've got NSA guys on their NSA net, the NGA guys on the NGA net, the CIA's on its own network. They're all doing the same mission, supporting the same commander and working at the same objective. But their idea of sharing data is sending emails to each other across their different networks. When we can roll into a theater of operations and bring in a single network to provide intel support to that theater, that will be success."