Wolfe brings the cloud to the intelligence community

CIA chief information officer Doug Wolfe ushers in an era of cloud computing to the intelligence community, offering powerful new tools for rapid data integration and analytics.

Doug Wolfe, the chief information officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, is a cloud pioneer. His job: Guide the development of cloud computing for the whole of the intelligence community, knock down barriers between silos of data and analysis, introduce speedy IT and software development to traditionally slow-moving organizations and help make the intelligence sector a beacon of innovation for the rest of government.

That might not be how his job description is written, but as the technology leader at the CIA, that’s the mission he’s embarked on.

The CIA’s $600 million hosted cloud solution from Amazon Web Services (AWS) recently came online, after protests from the losing companies were settled. The system  is available to provide services on demand to the 17 agencies of the intelligence community (IC), for which CIA is the executive agency responsible for providing services.

The solution – an air-gapped public cloud that uses wholly commercial technology provided by AWS –fulfills a vision set out in the IC’s five-year Information Technology Enterprise (ITE) strategy published in 2012.

However, it’s also the result of a long-time interest by the CIA in using virtualization to boost the performance of its data centers and provide its analysts with different, and better, analytics tools.

Taken together, and with a growing desire to integrate systems and capabilities across the entire IC, the cloud became an obvious answer to the scope and scale this required.

“It gives us the flexibility to optimize resources across different workloads at different times, and ensures we have [compute] capacity ahead of the demand,” Wolfe said. “It fit nicely.”

That affects “time to mission” significantly, he said, since setting up new analytics and data center environments will now end up taking just days, rather than the months or even years it has taken to set up resources with the traditional development model.

AWS will be able to use commercial technology advances for the IC cloud as soon as they are available, which will enable major software innovation within the IC. At least that’s the expectation.

“Right up front, I think people will be able to access and provision a test and development environment that will give them the opportunity to explore and develop things much more rapidly than in the past,” Wolfe said.

“That will give us the experience we need to be able to transition and optimize higher end and more production-ready applications into the cloud over time.”

Mapping functions are a clear target for these capabilities. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) could set up environments that will tap the computing power of the cloud, “so I see them as being one of the earliest mission adopters,” Wolfe said.

The new tools will “absolutely” change the role of analysts in the IC, Wolfe believes, though exactly how is unclear. “One of my really great hopes is that we set up an environment for innovation so we’ll be able to explore what can be automated, what can be done with machine-to-machine interactions and where humans need to be involved and can add value,” he said.

Likewise, it will also change the job of the CIO, which Wolfe came to halfway through the cloud acquisition process, as the deputy there in 2012 and later being named CIO in October last year. He’s been with the CIA in various other posts for some 30 years.

The provision of an entire technology platform and middleware stack via the AWS cloud removes many of the office’s responsibilities as solely a provider of IT. “So our focus is going to be, more and more, on how to provide the value-added analytics gaps that can make a difference to mission time,” he said.

Wolfe has had to deal with many skeptics, particularly over the issue of security in the cloud – and they still exist. There’s also cultural bias to overcome, and he admits that he also, “was one of those guys who felt it was nice to own your own IT to feel it and be able to kick it.”

Nothing can be taken for granted, and there’s still a lot of work that has to be done, but in the end, “I’m confident we’ll achieve many of the successes we are looking for,” Wolfe said. “I’m confident this will end up being a good investment.”

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