Rapid Access Computing Environment, or RACE, is an accessible and scalable platform which uses virtualisation and the "nearly unlimited" capability of cloud computing and is the first of its kind for DoD technology.
"Users can now customise, purchase and receive their test and development computing platform within 24 hours and the production environments within 72 hours, and that's a must for worldwide missions with ever-changing computing requirements," explained Henry Sienkiewicz, technical program director for DISA computing services.
"Our goal is to allow software development to securely occur within the decision-making cycle," he added.
RACE provides the DoD with highly standardised computing platforms, quickly, inexpensively and securely and forms part of a move towards cloud computing.
Among the advantages of this new infrastructure is the fact that there is no capital investment required, it offers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year service support and there are no annual maintenance fees.
These are some of the benefits outlined by Bob Gourley, the former chief technology officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency in a recent report on cloud computing provided to the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council as input to the White House Review of Communications and Information Infrastructure.
Defining Cloud Computing
In it, he said that cloud computing held great potential for "dramatic, positive change."
So how is cloud computing defined? And what can it offer the US DoD and other military operations around the world?
As far as the lay person is concerned, it constitutes any capability that is delivered over the network, Bob Gourley explained. However, technologists and enterprise architects offer a more sophisticated definition, using the term in a different way.
"To them, cloud computing implies new ways of providing capability on demand by use of virtualized resources," Gourley confirmed.
"It involves pools of storage, network, processing and other computational resources that can be efficiently allocated on demand. It also implies far more agility in support of operational missions," he added.
Pretty much every company that provides IT hardware, software or services contributes to cloud computing, with the likes of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce.com and VMWare all major players in the US market.
Experience has shown that there are various features users can expect from this type infrastructure that operates in the cloud.
Capital expenditure is minimised and performance in monitored and usually consistent. It offers enhanced reliability, making it useful for disaster recovery, and its scalability means that changing user demands can be met quickly without engineers having to prepare for peak loads.
Cloud computing users are also able to access systems regardless of their location or what device they are using, which is a particular advantage for military operations.
The multi-tenancy nature of the platform also means that sharing resources among a large pool of users is also possible. This in turn allows for centralisation of infrastructure in areas where costs might be lower, in terms of real estate and electricity, for example. It also improves efficiency for systems that are often only 10 to 20 percent used.
Improved efficiency also means that enhanced sustainability, although computers and associated infrastructure still consume large amounts of energy.
Importantly, in both a military and civilian context, security typically improves because data is centralised and it is easier to patch, upgrade, monitor and encrypt systems. However, there are concerns about loss of control over certain sensitive data.
Bill Mann, senior vice president of strategy of the security management business unit at CA, speaking at the Gartner Information Security Summit recently, said that the protecting information from unauthorised parties will be the most pressing safety concern for cloud computing in the near future.
Getting security right from the outset is extremely important for service providers, according to Adam Bosnian, vice-president of products, strategy and sales at Cyber-Ark.
"Security doesn't work as a retrofit–it needs to be built in from scratch for it to be effective," he concluded.
The Federal Cloud Blog just spoke with Henry Sienkiewicz, Technical Program Director for DISA’s Computing Services Directorate, who told us all about how DISA is moving into the cloud with its Rapid Access Computing Environment (RACE) . . . and about the fact that the Defense Department plans to launch an apps store of its own!Federal Cloud Blog: This platform that you’re building. So, you’re in DoD and you want to try something. Walk us through the steps [and] how this works.
Henry Sienkiewicz: It’s actually very straightforward. We model the portal as if we were a commercial hosting site. So, under disa.mil, at the very top of the homepage right now, you’ll see the RACE logo. Or you can go through the computing services page on the side of the DISA portal to get to the RACE environment. You just literally log on there. You have to use your CAC card. . . . You log onto the portal and you just sign yourself up. You can pick and choose a variety of options. While we’ve tried to highly standardize the environment, we recognize that some users will need more computing, some will need more storage, so we’ve given them a mix-and-match portfolio to be able to pick a variety of options, although we’ve tried to keep it standardized with a LAMP stack as well as a Windows stack.
FCB: It seems like, in some ways, you may actually be able to improve the security levels of what most servers [have] because this is something you guys focus on all the time.
HS: That’s absolutely correct, although . . . one of the other neat pieces of the portal is that we actually are able to take a NIPR, which is the way we transfer money inside the department, or a government credit card online. We launched that, actually, in October of last year and it was one of those things that took a great deal of time and effort from the rest of the team — to figure out how to do — and our friends at Treasury helped us with the process. But it was a great success story on — how do we actually allow people to have that flexibility to order as they need it [while] making sure the money trail is completely and totally followed properly? We can spin up on virtual operating environments as fast as everyone else. 23 plus of those hours from our test and development environment — I’m able to provison right now in 24 hours — [and] 23 plus of those hours is actually moving the money. So, for us it’s been a great story.
FCB: You’ve been in development and you’ve been testing. What are some of the lessons that you learned from the test platform that actually ended up going into the live platform?
HS: We actually were able to use almost all of the code, all of the process, all of the procedures. When we thought it out at the very beginning, we established a very solid baseline at that point in time. Over the course of the last year, we’ve added additional options. We’ve done incremental releases, so we’re not believers in a big bang release of just one major code release a year.
FCB: And that is something particular with cloud computing. It gives you that ability to do that — and it makes those kind of iterative releases [easier]. It doesn’t become the ordeal that it could be.
HS: By keeping it standardized underneath the covers, we’re able to gradually and gracefully release and bring the customer base along with us, as opposed to forcing them to do massive migrations all at once, we’re able to go there and gradually allow them the ability to keep moving forward.
FCB: Is this something that would be available through the Apps store, even thought [it is] seen as largely commercial products?
HS: We are not going to put it as part of the GSA apps store. We’re going to be working with the DoD CIO as they’re developing an application store, as well. So we’re going to be folding our efforts in there; however, the team that has worked on the GSA apps store and my team have been actively engaged and participating in a lot of the same venues and a lot of the same conferences and we are more than willing to share what we have done with the rest of the federal community. My boss . . . and I are routinely talking, both in public forums, as well as in government forums, on these very topics. Our team is routinely interacting outside the agency and across the department with other people who are trying to establish the exact same thing.