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CIA off and running with Amazon Web Services

Kenneth Corbin | June 26, 2014
The CIA intends to have its AWS deployment near completion this summer, it said at an AWS conference in Washington. The spy agency is working through security challenges while looking ahead to significant operating efficiencies and cost savings.

WASHINGTON — When the CIA began contemplating a move to the cloud, the tech team looked for a commercial partner that could help modernize its IT infrastructure and introduce a level of agility that would bring the agency more in line with private-sector enterprises.

The spy agency embarked on what CIO Douglas Wolfe describes as a rigorous acquisition process, inviting only vendors with an established, commercially viable and highly flexible cloud solutions to vie for the plum contract.

The CIA ultimately settled on the Amazon Web Services cloud platform, a leading player in the market that has been garnering increasing interest from CIOs in the public sector, who amid flat or declining budgets must do more with less.

"The mission that we have is important, and the pace and complexity of that mission is not changing. In fact it may be increasing," Wolfe said in remarks on Tuesday at an Amazon AWS conference.

The award of the contract, valued at up to $600 million, was itself the subject of some controversy, with IBM protesting the way that the CIA evaluated the proposals. Amazon filed a lawsuit in federal claims court, and finally prevailed in October, settling the matter.

The CIA and Amazon today are working together to set up the cloud, which Wolfe says should be close to completion later this summer.

CIA Putting AWS Behind Langley's Firewall

Wolfe describes the implementation as very much a custom build. It brings the flexibility and agility of the public cloud on-location, behind the CIA's very thick firewall in Langley.

"We're ... putting together this public cloud on private premises," he says. "The idea is to be able to take the best of the public sector — we're going to lift it and sort of place it behind our fence line, if you will, but then be able to operate them for the intelligence community on our premises."

That rollout involves testing the commercial cloud to what Wolfe describes as some "pretty high security standards" at the agency, a process that he acknowledges entails something of a clash of cultures as Amazon's AWS team works alongside the technologists at the highly secretive agency.

Amazon, for its part, positions security a key selling point as it courts government contracts, though that issue remains a high hurdle in the public sector.

"Many people are confused about security in the cloud," says Steve Schmidt, AWS' vice president of engineering and CISO. "That's sometimes a little uncomfortable. Many CIOs get a little fidgety."

Different as the method of providing computing power, storage and other services may be in the cloud, the security policies and procedures for securing data are fundamentally the same, "just applied in a different way," Schmidt argues.


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