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Congress Plays Catch-Up In JEDI Cloud Controversy

Experts worry that the Pentagon’s cloud-adoption strategy will stall without sustained oversight from Capitol Hill.

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Aug. 12, 2019, 8 p.m.

Friction over a massive cloud-computing contract has generated renewed focus from lawmakers on the military’s road map for modernization, which experts and industry hope won’t fizzle out after the Pentagon picks a winner.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper vowed to take “a hard look” at the long-delayed Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract last month, shortly after President Trump said he had received “tremendous” complaints about the proposal. The contract is worth up to $10 billion over the next decade, and would put a single provider in charge of the Pentagon’s “general purpose” cloud. Smaller players like IBM and Oracle say the winner-take-all solicitation was written to favor Amazon.

The controversy has attracted an unusual degree of focus from Congress on cloud computing, with members lobbying the Trump administration for and against the contract, and crafting legislation to block funding. While industry experts lauded lawmakers’ scrutiny of JEDI, they said that Congress needs to start reviewing cloud computing strategy more broadly, as the Pentagon starts spending billions on the technology.

“JEDI Cloud procurement has been on the street for two years—to weigh in at the hours, or days before source selection was scheduled to be announced seems to me to be coming a little late in the process,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president at Professional Services Council, a trade group that represents the technology industry.

“The next big thing that’s important is … the cybersecurity element of it,” he added. “And I think Congress is right to be asking those questions—at the right time in the procurement process, not after the bids have been submitted.”

Microsoft and Amazon are the only two companies still competing for JEDI, which officials hope to award at the end of August. Pentagon Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy declined to say Friday how Esper’s review would affect the final reward date.

Lawmakers have sent a flurry of letters weighing in on the contract.

Sen. Marco Rubio lobbied National Security Advisor John Bolton to delay the contract. Sen. Ron Johnson urged Esper to do the same until an inspector general's investigation is completed. Rep. Steve Womack wrote a letter to Trump asking for his “personal attention” into the matter in July. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, wrote a letter to Trump emphasizing the need to move quickly on the contract. And Sens. Jack Reed and Mark Warner wrote to Esper on Monday calling on him to “resist political pressures” when making his decision, a veiled reference to Trump’s disdain for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

In what could be a more serious roadblock, House appropriators’ budget withholds funding for JEDI until the Pentagon explains how it plans to “eventually transition to a multi-cloud environment, as described in its January 2019 Cloud Initiative Report to Congress.” The appropriators warn that JEDI could backfire due to the “rapid pace of innovation in the industry.”

Although the JEDI project dwarfs most other technology contracts, it’s hardly the only cloud investment the Pentagon intends to make in the coming years. In August, the military is expected to award an $8 billion contract for the Defense Enterprise Office Solutions cloud, or DEOS, which will handle communication and collaboration.

The Defense Information Systems Agency is working to migrate applications and data onto MilCloud 2.0, which runs on servers at two Air Force bases in Alabama and Oklahoma. The Armed Services Committee authorized $2 billion for the project in their version of the 2020 defense bill.

Outside the Pentagon, other national security agencies are making large investments in cloud technology. The CIA, which inked a $600 million deal with Amazon in 2013 for its first enterprise-level cloud, is set to award billions in follow-on contracts for the intelligence community in the coming years.

Experts say getting people within government literate in cloud technologies is critical to conducting managing these projects and that investments in the workforce need to happen now, regardless of the outcome of JEDI.

“The DOD can attract talent, but retaining talent once it’s in the door is all about environment and culture,” said Lindsey Sheppard, an associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Talent will stay with the department if it can work on hard problems with the right tools at the speed of software. Lawmakers should focus on establishing priority career tracks for digital talent, IT modernization to get the right computing infrastructure, and new software acquisition pathways.”

There have been some efforts to kickstart workforce investments. Sens. Rob Portman and Martin Heinrich, the cofounders of the new Senate Artificial Intelligence Caucus, introduced legislation in mid-May to establish digital engineering as a career track in the military. Under the bill, which was rolled into the both the Senate and House versions of the 2020 defense-policy bill, a new chief digital-engineering recruitment and management officer would develop and maintain “training, education, talent management, incentives, and promotion policies” for computer scientists at the DOD.

The need for talented administrators will only intensify as the Pentagon’s cloud infrastructure matures, noted experts. In tandem with JEDI, the Pentagon plans to allow for the development of additional “fit-for-purpose” clouds—like DEOS and MilCloud—if an agency can rationalize them to the Pentagon’s Chief Information Officer in an “exception brief” explaining why JEDI “does not support their mission.”

One industry executive unaffiliated with JEDI, who spoke on background to discuss the Pentagon’s cloud projects, said his company had adopted a “peaceful coexistence” strategy to deal with the new program.

“While we are doing well, and we are migrating people … I think there is a misunderstanding that everybody has to wait until JEDI is awarded,” said the contractor. “...Let’s learn some lessons now so that when that next-gen cloud comes along, whether it’s JEDI or whatever comes after it, that you’ve got something to build on.”

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