Air Force doubling down on IT efficiencies

Friday - 12/9/2011, 5:42am EST

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Air Force had already been planning to cut its information technology spending by more than a billion dollars over the next five years. Now it's going to have to find a way to grapple with almost twice that amount.

The service announced the first round of IT savings in January, when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates rolled out his efficiency initiatives. The $1.2 billion in IT savings the Air Force pledged to the effort represented a 25 percent reduction in the service's planned spending over the next five years.

Now, Air Force leadership has told its IT folks to find another $1.1 billion dollars, said Lt. Gen. Michael Basla, the vice commander of Air Force Space Command, the organization that's now responsible for managing and implementing enterprise IT for the Air Force.

"Nothing is off the table, and as the nation works toward a financial recovery, we'll likely break a few paradigms," Basla said at a recent symposium hosted by the U.S. Strategic Command. "We'll consider outsourcing certain functions when it makes sense fiscally, and from a mission standpoint. Unclassified email is a good example. The [General Services Administration] has already made that transition, and the Air Force may follow, though we are in the preliminary phases of the discussion."

GSA recently migrated its entire workforce to Google's email and collaboration services, becoming one of the first federal agencies to move entirely to an outsourced cloud product for email.

The Air Force already is in the process of consolidating a network that for years has been made up of individual IT stovepipes operated by individual bases and major commands. A new enterprise network, AFNET, will move services such as email, chat and Active Directory up into a secure cloud.

Finding more savings from software

The service is hosting those services itself for now, though leaders had previously indicated they were likely to migrate email functions to the DoD cloud services hosted by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), as the Army has done.

For the new $1.1 billion in savings, Basla said the Air Force hopes to wring most of the money out of its existing IT applications. There are way too many, he said, though figuring out which ones to keep and which ones to toss will be a challenge. But he said the Air Force already has begun migrating applications off of individual bases and onto enterprise computing centers.

"The goal is to standardize IT computing environments," he said. "A good example of that is a pilot program we have with the Navy to host [Microsoft's] Sharepoint, IBM FileNet and [task management and case management tools]. That effort is at a certified federal data center, but I've had plenty of discussions with industry members, and I'll continue to do so to look for opportunities."

According to the newly-released Defense Department data center consolidation plan, both the Air Force and the Army have adopted a "DISA first" strategy, meaning they'll consider DISA for hosting applications and data before looking anywhere else. The same plan projected a 47 percent reduction in the number of Air Force data centers by 2015.

Basla said the Air Force also is teaming up with DISA and the other military services to do a better job of managing its software costs, setting up agreements to handle enterprise software licensing across the services with vendors such as Microsoft, Adobe and Oracle.

He said the new role for Air Force Space Command also will bring efficiencies of its own. His organization now is the Air Force's core functional lead integrator for IT systems and responsible for planning and programming for cyberspace capabilities across the entire organization.

"For industry, that's a different model than we've had in the past," he said. "It eliminates the need for each [major command] to acquire these cyber capabilities specific to their needs. That changes the relationship between Air Force Space Command and other major commands. It brings about some interesting discussions about lanes in the road and culture change."

Benefits of efficiencies are clear

Basla said the IT efficiency effort is far from finished, but he thinks it's already yielded benefits besides saving money. It's also more secure. The Air Force has reduced the number of individual linkages between the service and the DoD Global Information Grid from 104 to just 16. He said that arrangement is a lot easier for the Air Force's cyber command to defend.

"The question is whether you want to defend your network from a thousand different threat vectors or fewer threat vectors," he said. "We've come down on the side of the latter. This also gets to resiliency. We will not be able to defend against every threat that our adversaries thrown against us. But we think this will give us a better posture, given the resources that are available, and especially given the challenges of maintaining a competent workforce."

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