While federal agencies are still learning how to port their systems to multiple cloud providers, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is leading the way, demonstrating in September how multiple international disaster relief organizations could come together in a matter of hours and begin collaborating in a single cloud environment.
The NGA demonstration provided a window onto the cloud's potential for creating virtual organizations on the fly, by overcoming technical hurdles and political boundaries through a federated infrastructure and open standards.
Think of virtual organizations as a secure collaboration environment that's not exclusively associated with any one physical organization or site. There are agreed-upon rules and processes, managed by a virtual organization membership service. Participants retain complete control over their own resources, data and services; their access can be modified or revoked at any time.
Using the cloud, NGA wanted to find out if it could share nonclassified, standards-based geospatial data with a variety of international partners while still protecting sensitive data and adhering to U.S. security regulations.
To conduct the test, NGA turned to the Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium (NCOIC), an international nonprofit that promotes interoperable networks between industries and governments. Using a cloud brokerage and management tool from NJVC, the consortium created an OpenStack community cloud for the geospatial community.
Then NCOIC led a real-time disaster-response simulation, modeled on the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Six members of the consortium -- Aerospace Corp., Boeing, NJVC, Raytheon, Telos and Winthrop Management Services -- portrayed government and civilian response teams from different countries, while showing some of the technical capabilities each contributed, such as Boeing's open Ozone dashboard for prioritizing data.
The simulation showed, among other things, how first responders were able to access data without "having to retool their systems" -- and without having to establish authentication for individual data repositories, says Todd Myers, NGA's lead global computer architect.
Computing power and storage are getting so cheap, says NJVC general manager Kevin L. Jackson, that "if I call something A and you call it B, we no longer have to agree to call it C," making it easier to share data in the cloud. That ability can save huge amounts of configuration and support costs, he says.
Eric Vollmecke, program director for NCOIC's geospatial community cloud demonstrations, commanded two airlift wings for the Air National Guard during the Haitian operations and recalls it took 96 hours to set up full command operations in Haiti. Based on the NGA simulation, it would take a small fraction of that time today. That agility is huge for disaster relief organizations. The broader promise is the potential savings agencies and enterprises can realize in standing up virtual organizations.