Sometimes data must be kept so secure, and the aggregation of that data is so sensitive, that leveraging the public cloud simply isn't an option, which is why organizations like the CIA are looking at creating, with the help of expert partners like Amazon or IBM, private cloud computing solutions.
The Shadow Cloud: Private AWS for the CIA?
The CIA recognizes the benefits of cloud computing, although they have become a little red-faced over the $600 million, hush-hush deal that would see a private cloud built with the aid and expertise of Amazon and their Amazon Web Services department. Of course, it should come as no surprise to discover that IBM, who are fairly adept themselves at building private cloud computing systems, are blowing the whistle on the agreement, complaining that the Agency didn’t follow appropriate practices in doing price comparisons among competitors. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) would appear to agree with IBM, ruling that the CIA should open up the bidding to get more price quotes. Sadly for IBM, this seems to be more of a suggestion than an outright command.
The argument in favor of AWS
One could speculate that the CIA is unlikely to look favorably on IBM because the company blabbed to the oversight office when it didn’t get this coveted contract. AWS, of course, is claiming that there really is no contest. The web services giant, which confirmed that it has been in talks with the CIA after the GAO ruling came down, says they are the obvious choice because of their superior technology. According to a quote published in The Register, “The Agency conducted a very detailed, thorough procurement that took many months to award.” It is not hard imagine that they did. In fact, it was probably alarmingly more thorough than the folks at Amazon even knew.
AWS isn’t likely to eat its words about private clouds. Instead, the company will try to prove that they are the ones who can finally do it right.
Lukas Stewart, Enterprise Software Architect
AWS says No to private clouds?
Interestingly though, in April 2013, AWS made a very emphatic statement that private corporate clouds simply don’t have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the public cloud. The Wall Street Journal covered the story under the headline Amazon Web Services Battles Private Clouds. AWS has been a vocal opponent of truly private clouds for enterprise, even as this option becomes more and more popular with big businesses. In fact, Red Hat, with their sponsorship of OpenStack, has pretty much bet their company on the future of private cloud computing networks. On the other hand, AWS points out that what is being called a cloud is often lacking in the most basic functionality one would expect from a public cloud. This includes self-service provisioning as well as resource automation and tracking. These private clouds are sometimes little more than virtualized, on-premise server resources.
Doesn’t AWS already offer private clouds?
AWS does have a virtual private cloud offering, Amazon VPC, which allows security-conscious enterprises to access additional resources in an isolated manner. Users can define and segment these resources to have public and private facing sections, including areas with databases and network servers that are not directly connected to the Internet. Businesses can specify their own IP addresses, create subnets, and maintain network access control. Hardware VPN can also be connected to corporate data centers to allow expansion and EC2 bursting. AWS is also participating in the FedRAMP initiative and has a GovCloud that is separated from its regular cloud and used exclusively for government clients. However, these options are not truly private clouds built for individual customers.
How the CIA initiative is unique
This CIA initiative would be Amazon’s first attempt to build an actual, physical private cloud on client infrastructure. The fact that IBM wasn’t the top candidate for this job is very telling. The Agency didn’t even go for one of the many enterprise-class private cloud providers that have already made a name for themselves in the last few years. The fact that AWS was the number one choice is an indication that the consumerization of the private cloud, transforming it to be more like the public cloud, is already underway. AWS isn’t likely to eat its words about private clouds. Instead, the company will try to prove that they are the ones who can finally do it right.
The CIA wants a cloud with all the capabilities of the AWS public version, but hosted on their own hardware, behind their own firewall. They aren’t willing to compromise on flexibility and scalability. This isn’t just another enterprise class customer, and it isn’t a regular government entity that can rely on good enough security. The CIA is working with what’s got to be one of the biggest and most complex data sets in the world, and it needs to increase its analytical capabilities all the time just to sift through the available information. In other words, it probably really does need a massive cloud all to itself. Choosing AWS means they get all the technology and expertise required while limiting the number of vendors involved. Once AWS demonstrates the ability to make this work, it may find itself with a whole new market as the premier private cloud provider.
The private cloud, or even the hybrid public-private cloud, is being demanded by more and more organizations than ever before. Whether the demand is supplied by Red Hat through their embracing of OpenStack and the assorted suite of technologies, or by entrenched vendors like Amazon through their AWS technology, only the future can tell. But in the end, the winners will be the customers, as the big market players continue to battle over this new and interesting twist in the cloud computing space.
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