NSA plots the evolution of GovCloud in new acquisition

Intelligence Community CIO John Sherman debuted NSA's Hybrid Compute Initiative (HCI) as an "evolution" of the agency's current GovCloud environment.
John Sherman, ODNI, Intelligence Community CIO
John Sherman speaks Jan. 14, 2020, at the Data Cloud Summit presented by Cloudera and produced by FedScoop. (Scoop News Group)

The intelligence community is in the market for more than just a new commercial cloud computing environment. It’s also looking to modernize the National Security Agency-operated on-premise GovCloud, the IC’s top IT official announced Wednesday.

John Sherman, the CIO of the IC, debuted the plan for NSA’s Hybrid Compute Initiative (HCI) at an AFCEA NOVA conference as an “evolution” of the agency’s current GovCloud environment.

Sherman said NSA plans to issue a solicitation in March for HCI that will depart from the on-premise-only nature of GovCloud, which he said isn’t really a cloud as much as it is a “high-performance analytics environment … an operation of massive scale where agencies can correlate their data at massive scale against NSA’s very significant [signals intelligence] holdings.”

Instead, the Hybrid Compute Initiative will depend on vendors for managed services like hardware as a service and “bulk-priced” cloud computing.


“HCI will be tailored to address the massive processing and analytical requirements that NSA has, the software that must … run at very honed specifications on bare metal hardware and cloud computing that must be bought in bulk given … the data quantities and processing demands at NSA,” Sherman said.

In an interview after his speech, Sherman told FedScoop that HCI will give NSA, and the other intelligence agencies that use it, a “much more modern architecture that builds on what they’ve learned with GovCloud, but in a more managed service kind of set of architectures that allows them to get out of some of their brick-and-mortar facilities at Fort Meade and elsewhere.”

HCI vs. C2E

Meanwhile, the HCI acquisition comes as the CIA is simultaneously developing for the intelligence community what will likely go down as one of the government’s largest-ever commercial cloud contracts — the Commercial Cloud Enterprise.

Known as C2E, it’s the highly anticipated follow-on cloud procurement to the like-named Commercial Cloud Services (C2S), awarded to Amazon Web Services in 2013 for $600 million. However, the new multi-cloud contract will have a 15-year period of performance and be worth “tens of billions” of dollars, according to earlier contracting documents.


While the two acquisitions will be released and up for bid at roughly the same time — both could be awarded as early as this fall — Sherman wanted to be clear that they are “complementary” in nature and not at all competing.

Together, he said, they create an inflection point for the intelligence community’s use of modern digital technologies.

“We did a lot of rigor to make sure that these are the right kind of new twin pillars moving forward,” Sherman said, adding that his office is “brokering” their development and use in the larger intelligence community.

“I will emphasize NSA and we the IC writ large need both arrows in our quiver: C2E as well as HCI,” he said.

Agencies that need elastic cloud computing — the pay-as-you-go model — can look to C2E. “So if you’re one of the intel agencies and you have a workload that fits an elastic, kind of spiky compute need, you would leverage C2E,” Sherman told FedScoop. Even NSA, when it needs elastic computing, will go to C2E, he said.


Sherman explained the evolution to a multi-cloud model of flexibility for C2E: “We recognize too that over the past six or seven  years, we’ve now gotten to a point in our enterprise so we’re ready not only to move to a different type of ecosystem, but the mission demands it — that we are ready to move to an environment where we can use best-athlete capabilities, having potentially more than one vendor that brings different strengths on things like [artificial intelligence] and [machine learning] and different workloads and database management, all these kinds of different pieces going together to where, as an officer at one of the agencies, you can say my workload may run best in this cloud.”

But for NSA’s greater mission of signals intelligence and the more than 170 outward-facing apps that currently depend on GovCloud infrastructure, the needs are different. “NSA is always on all the time and running a very high capacity — it’s like a jet engine that’s wide open all the time given the NSA requirements,” Sherman said.

“There is nothing elastic about what goes on with the mission at Fort Meade,” he told FedScoop. And “the software they have in GovCloud now needs to run, in some instances, on bare metal to be able to get that extra oomph of performance off of that.” He wouldn’t comment on the size or length of any awards under HCI.

Though taken off-premise under HCI, the services will have to still be geographically close to meet NSA’s demands for speed. “The speed of light matters in terms of data conveyance, and infrastructure must not be too far from the NSA core facilities,” Sherman said.

Sherman also stressed as a priority in 2020 the need for the intelligence community to develop a strategy for more effective and efficient use of data centers and other forms of data hosting, and the HCI acquisition supports that vision as it will allow NSA to vacate some of its legacy data centers and hosting facilities, he said, hoping to have the new strategy released publicly later in 2020.


Overall, the mission hasn’t changed for NSA and the IC as they look to evolve from GovCloud to the Hybrid Cloud Initiative. “But the way we’re going to do it is going to be more modern and impactful,” Sherman told FedScoop.

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