Homeland Security’s Private Cloud

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Government security agencies may strike you as odd candidates for cloud computing. But not Richard Spires. Under Spires’ leadership, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is implementing a private cloud infrastructure.

“Right now we’re doing it in our own facilities,” said Spires, the CIO of DHS. ” We have capabilities that look very much like a private cloud.”

The cloud computing initiative is part of a broader push to update the IT infrastructure for DHS, the huge agency formed after the 9/11 attacks to protect America from terrorist attacks. The effort also includes a data center consolidation designed to reduce its facilities from 24 data centers down to just two. The agency’s struggles to streamline and manage its IT infrastructure come under regular scrutiny from Congress and auditors.

“We have issues,” said Spires, who discussed his agency’s data center operations at the recent DataCenterDynamics conference in Washington, D.C. “The issue of how we improve this situation is very critical. It has my attention, and the attention of the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) as well.”

One of the issues is turnover. Spires just hit his one-year anniversary on the job, and is the eighth CIO in eight years for Homeland Security. He supervises 15,000 people and $6.4 billion of IT spending across more than 100 large-scale programs. Two of the major initiatives are the consolidation and cloud-enabling of DHS services.

Major Data Center Consolidation Underway
On the consolidation front, DHS has already mothballed six older data centers and migrated their operations into the department’s two new data centers in Mississippi and Virginia. Another 18 facilities have yet to be consolidated, and the project is on target to be completed in 2014.

The Mississippi data center contains about 63,000 square feet of raised floor space in a 100,000 square foot building, and is about 60 percent utilized. The Virginia facility is a similar size, but is at about 30 percent of capacity.

Both of the new data centers are managed by contractors. HP/EDS manages the Virginia facility, while CSC operates the Mississippi data center. Whenever possible, applications being migrated out of legacy data centers are being shifted to a virtualized environment, Spires said, instead of a “lift and shift” migration of existing hardware.

Common Operating Environment A Key Development
Towards that end, DHS has developed a common operating environment (COE) for it’s private cloud offerings. “I think this is what can be transformational for DHS,” said Spires, who said the agency can now provide development and test environments in a week instead of 26 weeks.

“We really are trying to act as a private cloud, moving to a services-based pricing model,” said Spires. “We are early in this, but making good progress.” The current offering includes full virtualization capabilities, a multi-tenant environment, and is paid for as a service. One advantage of the new system is that it makes it easier to manage chargebacks for users within the sprawling DHS purview.

“We want to be charging for usage,” said Spires. “We’re putting headquarters apps in the COE first, and then finding the pain points. It’s a pretty compelling story. We’ll go after the willing first, and then the rest. When it’s mission-critical facilities, you want a lot of confidence (in your implementation.”

Will DHS ever use a public cloud? “We are not adverse to moving some offerings outside our firewall, but 80 to 90% of our data is classified,” said Spires. “Ongoing concerns about security and accreditation are probably the primary obstacles.”

About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor-in-chief of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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