What the CIA Private Cloud Really Says About Amazon Web Services

When the CIA opted to have Amazon build its private cloud, even though IBM could do it for less money, a tech soap opera ensued. Lost amid the drama, though, is a perfectly reasonable explanation why Amazon Web Services makes sense for the CIA--and why a disruptive AWS represents the future of the cloud.

By Bernard Golden
Tue, August 06, 2013

CIO — Back in March, leaked news that the CIA was about to award a $600 million private cloud contract to Amazon Web Services kicked off a series of events and gossip worthy of a soap opera.

Much of the early discussion focused on the fact that Amazon was going to turn its back on its avowed public-cloud-is-the-only-true-cloud stance, swallow its pride and implement a single-client cloud environment. In many of the discussions (not especially the one linked to above) there was a bit of a gleeful smirk about Amazon's about-face.

While this change of policy is interesting, it undoubtedly reflects two things. First, the contract is for a lot of money, so it's attractive from a commercial point of view. Second, and more important, the endorsement implicit in the CIA—the CIA!—choosing AWS is that it provides Amazon a trump card in all discussions about security, trustworthiness and so on.

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When a prospect raises the issue of AWS security, the sales rep is going to narrow his or her eyes, lean forward and, in a lowered voice, say, "Did I mention that the CIA trusts our cloud?" That endorsement is well worth the headache of running an environment dedicated to a single tenant.

IBM Bid for CIA's Public Cloud Was Lower, But Amazon's Was Better

Amazon Web Services Logo

Of late, much discussion has moved to IBM's protest of the award of the project to Amazon—specifically the fact that the CIA planned to award the project to AWS despite Amazon's bid being more than 50 percent higher than IBM's.

Forrester's James Staten provides good analysis of the protest, noting that IBM complained about how the RFP was scored on two items: One relating to how costs for a MapReduce service were calculated, and the other relating to how much responsibility the CSP would take on for removing viruses from provided software. Both complaints were sustained. IBM also complained that the RFP scoring didn't take into account AWS service outages, which the CIA rejected as irrelevant.

Now, I don't profess expertise in the ins and outs of federal government procurement, but my read of the Government Accountability Office decision showed two things. IBM was grasping at straws by raising such minor issues as the basis of an award protest, and these issues are unlikely to change the final outcome of this award. AWS will emerge victorious.

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However, to my mind, all this analysis misses the real import of the CIA choice of AWS for its cloud environment. The implications of the decision illustrate what will drive cloud user deployment decisions in the future and what the future makeup of the cloud provider marketplace will look like.

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