Commercial Cloud Passes the IC Test

CIA CIO says moving to cloud was the best decision the agency ever made.

CIA's adoption of commercial cloud services is rocketing the intelligence community’s capabilities and resulting in unprecedented innovation, CIA Chief Information Officer John G. Edwards said at the June 14 AWS Public Sector Summit in Washington, D.C. Edwards went so far to say moving to the cloud “was the best decision we ever made.”

The agency's high-profile move to the cloud began about four years ago when it chose Amazon Web Services to build a private cloud for the IC’s 17 agencies. AWS operates the entire C2S region on the CIA’s premises, but this cloud is not connected to the internet.  

The decision to move to C2S was simple.

“We want to be like commercial, we don’t want to be like government,” Edwards said. Starting this process was challenging. Too often, government pushes contractors and partners to act like more like government. That’s not what Edwards wanted. He forced the agency to act more like industry.

This approach is reaping successes for CIA and is having a “material impact on … the entire IC.” This rippling effect can be attributed to the six C2S superpowers changing the way CIA does business, according to Edwards:

  1. Speed: C2S provides the agency with infrastructure at the speed of mission. Before bringing the cloud on premise, provisioning a server took as long as 180 days. With AWS, it only takes minutes. “That’s a game changer for us,” Edwards said.

  2. Power: C2S is more powerful than CIA’s toughest mission challenges. The agency is bringing new services and features into its cloud at a commercial-matching velocity. It also provides a classified IC Marketplace (similar to AWS’ commercial marketplace) that has more than 100 applications with 70 more in the pipeline. CIA analysts and developers can download apps in minutes, test them and lease them if they meet mission needs. It eliminates the need for market surveys and lengthy, complex acquisition cycles that took months or years. The cloud also has a DevOps Factory with development tools for writing higher-quality, more consistent and secure code. It now has more than 4,000 developers across the community.  

  3. Scalability: C2S makes it possible to scale vast infrastructure in seconds. The cloud provides unlimited capacity and instant provisioning to stand up and run new apps and capabilities, where in the past, doing so in a data center wasted time and resources. With the cloud, the CIA is saving dollars, avoiding unnecessary costs and getting mission impact. It now has apps that don’t recapitalize on hardware, take hundreds of dollars to run a day (rather than thousands, and only minutes to run.

  4. Strength: C2S provides secure services with insight into configurations and infinite audit. “I’m never going to say anything you do in the cyber world is totally invincible, but this is pretty close,” Edwards said. The agency took this battle-tested cloud connected to the internet and dropped it behind its “guards, gates and guns,” and disconnected it from the internet, potentially making it more secure. AWS and CIA added even more security overlay controls and audits to meet specific system needs. “I would argue that this is probably the most secure thing there is out there,” Edwards said.

  5. Durability: C2S provides assured resilience and integrity with high-performing availability. CIA has a complete region with three availability zones, or three geographically dispersed data centers. So if one of those zones fails, the entire cloud region won’t. “That’s built in, we don’t have to think about it anymore, and that’s durability,” Edwards said.

  6. Truth: C2S provides the vessel for advanced analytics through artificial intelligence and machine insights. In the cloud, the agency can see inside its data, but also get the value, context and meaning of the data, and integrate it rather than just collect it. “We’re now discovering things that was never before discoverable,” Edwards said. Developers, data scientists and analysts are able to run analyses on complex datasets and work on difficult tasks and problems in the cloud.

For CIA, the opportunities with C2S don’t end here. Edwards said he’s exploring the use of artificial intelligence and new intelligence services to improve the accessibility of systems to its entire workforce, including those with disabilities or special needs. He’s excited to bring those capabilities into the IC community.

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