The Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract, a cloud project potentially worth up to $10 billion and awarded to Microsoft on October 25, has been sparking battles of Star Wars intensity.
In a court complaint filed December 9, erstwhile front-runner Amazon Web Services (AWS) accused President Trump of launching “behind-the-scenes attacks” and pressuring the Department of Defense (DoD) to give the $10 billion contract to rival Microsoft. Trump is a frequent critic of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Meanwhile, another competitor, Oracle, has argued in federal court that conflicts of interest among Defense Department officials tainted the process. And anonymous Microsoft employees wrote an open letter last year opposing their company’s involvement.
Lost amid the controversy, however, is the massive project’s potential ripple effect as a cloud innovation driver within government and across the private sector. This will be true no matter the outcome of the JEDI contract.
Cloud computing has moved well beyond the days when it was seen merely as a cheaper way to store data and run applications. Today, the cloud has matured into the cornerstone of digital transformation across public and private sectors and an engine for emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, and the internet of things (IoT).
In 2010, then-U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra announced a Cloud First policy for federal agencies, saying that an estimated $20 billion of the government’s $80 billion annual IT spending could potentially be moved to the cloud. Since then, federal cloud spending has increased 500%, according to Deloitte.
However, significant challenges remain. A survey earlier this year by the Center for Digital Government found that several obstacles continue to bedevil cloud migration for government agencies, including data mobility, security, compliance, and ensuring the right training and skills.
JEDI is poised to have an enormous impact on all of these fronts.
While all federal agencies must be sure not to compromise security as they shift to the cloud, the bar is even higher for the Pentagon, for the obvious reason that national security is at stake. JEDI should be a catalyst for the development of cutting-edge security advances whose benefits will eventually spill over to all cloud users across the government and in the private sector.
The federal government has a program for security assessment and monitoring of cloud services — the Federal Risk and Authorization Program (FedRAMP) — and the JEDI contractor will need to adhere to it. However, an audit in March by the Office of Inspector General in the General Services Administration concluded that FedRAMP’s effectiveness is in question because of a lack of clear, concise mission and goals.
Best practices for executing state-of-the-art cloud security measures and evaluating their success under JEDI should find their way into FedRAMP, thus helping the government at large in this crucial area.
And this spillover effect will reach well beyond Washington because non-federal organizations working with the government are usually bound by FedRAMP as well, including contractors and universities receiving federal money.
JEDI can also be expected to be a fertile magnet and proving ground for specialists with a broad range of cloud-related skills, such as Linux, databases, machine learning, and, of course, security. It’s a safe bet this concentration of talented people will become key contributors to open source projects, provide the leadership the government will increasingly need as cloud continues to advance, and even go on to start their own companies.
Another important ripple effect has to do with AI. A better enterprise cloud is needed to build out the Pentagon’s plans to expand the use of AI systems throughout the military.
A November report submitted by the National Security Commission on artificial intelligence, which includes executives from major tech companies, asserted that national security depends on the government and Silicon Valley working together to develop the AI breakthroughs needed to keep the nation ahead of China.
JEDI will provide the cloud infrastructure to help ensure these advances become reality.
It’s not terribly unusual for huge government projects to have positive consequences beyond their original scope. Consider, for example, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), a six-year-old, $50 billion project led by AT&T to deploy the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety.
The results have been breathtaking, leading to the development of an exclusive cellular spectrum for first responders and communications innovations that are aiding public safety agencies in every state.
The controversy around JEDI may be dominating the headlines now, but once the real work begins, we can all expect benefits to accrue across government and society at large.
Stephan Fabel is director at Canonical, the publishers of Ubuntu.