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Inside the NSA's private cloud

Dirk A.D. Smith | Sept. 30, 2014
National Security Agency is building its private cloud on commodity hardware, open source software


The National Security Agency (NSA) had a problem familiar to any enterprise IT manager executive: it was running out of space for hundreds of disparate relational databases that contain everything from back-office information to intelligence on foreign interests. And it needed to consolidate those databases to make it easier for NSA analysts to do their job.

The NSA's initial approach was to scale up capacity. But halfway through the process, the staff realized that simply increasing the scope of the network was not going to work. So, CIO Lonny Anderson convinced General Keith Alexander, who was then Director of the NSA and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command, to approve a move to the cloud.

Today, as the private cloud project continues to be rolled out, the agency is seeing the benefits. Tasks that took analysts days now take as little as minutes, costs have been reduced, and the management and protection of information has taken a huge step forward.

To learn about this effort, which dates back to 2009, Network World was invited to interview Anderson at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. He explained that the goal was to create an environment sufficiently large to handle the data repositories and to ensure that analysts would have the user-facing experience of one-stop-shopping that the cloud can provide.

He also pointed out that the NSA effort is part of a larger migration of U.S. intelligence agencies to the cloud. In 2011, sequestration forced the Department of Defense to absorb ``huge budget cuts,'' says Anderson.

The agencies ``decided to economize by sharing IT services and thereby avoid a drastic slash," says Anderson. The NSA, CIA, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) divvied up the responsibilities, with NSA and CIA handling the cloud infrastructure; NGA and DIA taking on the desktop; and NRO focusing on network requirements and engineering services.

In addition to saving on cost, putting all intelligence community data in the same bucket is enhancing the speed, depth and efficacy of their work.

Inside the cloud
Anderson describes the private cloud as "an integrated set of open source and government developed services on commercial hardware that meets the specific operational and security needs of NSA and Intelligence Community (IC) m IC DS1 mission partners. NSA is part of an Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) effort to migrate to a community cloud that brings together NSA's cloud services with commercial cloud services at the classified level."

While more details could not be obtained due to security restrictions, we learned that it is based on the same commodity hardware used by public cloud providers. It also uses open source products such as Apache Hadoop, Apache Accumulo, OpenStack, and "a variety of other tools, packages, and virtualization layers."


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