Opinion

Will the JEDI Contract Help Microsoft’s Bid for Cloud Supremacy?

Last week, the US Department of Defense awarded a whopping US$ 10 billion contract to Microsoft. This is perhaps one of the largest technology contracts awarded to a single cloud computing player. Popularly known as JEDI (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure), this contract is aimed at modernising the technology used by the US Department of Defense.

During the bidding for this ambitious project, multiple controversies had erupted. This includes US President Donald Trump’s raising serious concerns about Amazon’s bidding process and also Oracle’s filing of lawsuit (which it eventually lost in the Federal Claims Court). For a while, the process was put on hold and until the newly appointed Defense Secretary Mark Esper joined and promised a thorough examination/investigation of the bidding process, it was not reopened.

So much so that when Pentagon’s plan to award a single contract for an enterprise-wide cloud service leaked through press in late 2017, a massive opposition erupted. Many lobbies and industry groups appealed both Pentagon and the US Congress to consider awarding JEDI to multiple companies and not a single one.

Interestingly, Google exited the bidding race in the middle because company feared its AI technologies being used to wage wars and it wasn’t in favour. Even Microsoft got such feelers from its staff but not to the point of resistance. But in the last one year, Microsoft has positioned itself as a friend to the U.S. military. Company’s President and its Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith earlier wrote that “Microsoft has long supplied technology to the military and would continue to do so, despite pushback from employees.” This makes company’s position clear and also its willingness despite some internal resistance.

While the controversies are now on the back-burner and the 10-year project has been awarded to Microsoft (to which Amazon registered its disappointment), it is important to know what’s JEDI and how does it intend to help the world’s most powerful military in modernising itself to be combat-ready in the era of data-driven decisions.

Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) Decoded

While any such large deal will have its own share of controversies, the Mission JEDI took off in 2017 when the then US Defense Secretary James Mattis said he’d like the DoD officials to prepare an elaborate blueprint for modernising its tech infra.

DOD’s spokesperson Heather Babb, while speaking to TechCrunch last month categorically stated the department sees a lot of upside of this approach to modernisation bid. “A single award is advantageous because, among other things, it improves security, improves data accessibility and simplifies the department’s ability to adopt and use cloud services.”

The project is a mammoth effort to enable the back office of the defense forces to the soldiers on the front with the access and analysis of data with the help of modern technologies like Artificial Intelligence and IoT. JEDI will ensure that the DOD rationalises (also optimises) the existing networks, datacenters and the cloud instances that are already in use.

In its statement of objectives for the project, the Department of Defense clearly stated that it requires an extensible and secure cloud environment that spans the homeland to the global tactical edge. It wanted the military to be equipped with capability to quickly access computing and storage capacity to address war-fighting challenges at the speed of relevance.

This is because the department’s current computing power is not only under great distress but also old, slow and outdated. This adds to the slow decision making in times when real-time decisions are touted as game changers. The idea was clear: to bring the DoD to speed as far as technology upgrade is concerned and also give it an enterprise-grade, cloud-based system that is easy to deploy, is secured, easy to maintain and above all gives the superiority over other military powers. While separate departments of the DoD were cutting their own cloud deals in the past, the ‘JEDI Approach’ clamoured to unify IT for the entire department including classified and non-classified operations.

In the wake of the fact that America’s biggest adversary China, which realised long ago that there is no other way to defend itself than to radically reform the warfare, in which ‘high technologies’ (read information technology) plays the most critical role. As early as in the year 2004, China elaborated its plan of “Informationization” in the China’ National DefenseIt became a vital factor in enhancing China’s war-fighting capability. Last year October when China released its Communist Party congress report, President Xi Jinping laid out an ambitious plan for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), demanding that the military modernise by 2035 and become one of the strongest forces by 2050. He also laid special emphasis that technology was at the core of combat strength and that the PLA needed to apply information technology and modern warfare strategies to advance. (From South China Modern Post).

As published in The Diplomat, PLA’s Major General and former director of Informatization Department Wang Kebin has stated China’s information revolution in three stages namely:

  • Digitalization
  • Networkization
  • Intelligentization

The third stage of Informatization, the culmination of decades of concentrated effort by the PLA, will involve the utilisation of emerging technologies including AI, big data, cloud computing etc. to enhance the PLA’s war capabilities.

No wonder America is paranoid to change its age old, disparate information systems and bring them under one central command with the capabilities of quick decision making. In its current form, the US Department of Defense has perhaps identified the gaps that prevent its military from drawing data-driven decisions at a speed they are required to be. That, of course, negatively impacts the outcomes.

What’s Microsoft Role in JEDI?

While the JEDI contract has finally been awarded to a single cloud provider, it still has many clauses wherein the Pentagon, through a process of review, can undo a lot of things, including revising the deal or making it a multi-cloud provider deal if Microsoft isn’t able to fulfil the peculiar demands. Though any company of that stature wouldn’t want to take chances however, fulfilment of this deal over a period of 10 years calls for a huge, concerted commitment.

While Amazon, during 2017, had bagged a contract worth US$600 million, even Microsoft during Jan 2019 bagged a large deal with the DoD worth US$1.6 billion for software development services and new certification for its Outlook mobile app but that didn’t include any element of its Azure cloud services. Earlier in the year 2013, the same Department of Defense awarded a 3-year, $617 million enterprise license agreement to Microsoft for latter’s software and services. So, Microsoft has a fair knowledge of working with the department.

Through JEDI, Pentagon has a huge ask on Microsoft. It is asked to not only overhaul the entire existing IT infrastructure, but also create a globally available and responsive network. From a cybersecurity point of view it would need to provide a comprehensive support to monitoring of issues like bugs and data breaches. Pentagon wants its systems to be fortified with enhanced cyber defences and fool proof encryption.

With the contract for JEDI now in place, US Department of Defense clearly looks at it to enhance its to apply modern technologies like AI/ML to its defense operations. Besides the overhaul of the backbone, Microsoft will also work to provide tactical edge devices for military operations.

With JEDI, the US Department of Defense aims at catching up with some of the world’s most advanced military organisations. It wants the data to move quicker with input of intelligence. It seems the way Pentagon handles data now isn’t anywhere closer to its ambition of becoming the top military in the world. Perhaps one large cloud may be more resilient than disparate clouds and networks.

During December 2018, the DoD issued an unclassified document titled “DoD Cloud Strategy” that outlined the department’s ambition to move to a singular cloud for more effective adoption. The document also listed seven strategic objectives namely:

  • Enable Exponential Growth
  • Scale for the Episodic Nature of the DoD Mission (Elasticity)
  • Proactively Address Cyber Challenges
  • Enable AI and Data Transparency
  • Extend Tactical Support for the Warfighter at the Edge
  • Take Advantage of Resiliency in the Cloud
  • Drive IT Reform at DoD

The document also emphasised mission and tactical edge needs along with the requirement to prepare for artificial intelligence while accounting for protection and efficiencies.

The task for Microsoft is clearly cut out. Through this open contract with an IDIQ (indefinite delivery and indefinite quantity), extendable to Oct 2029 Microsoft has to provide commercial IaaS and PaaS services at an enterprise level to the DoD. The DoD will use these services for its regular business as well as for mission operations.

But does it mean that Amazon isn’t the go-to-cloud vendor when it comes to government? Only time will tell.

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