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NSA CIO Pursues Intelligence-Sharing Architecture

In an exclusive interview, Lonny Anderson discusses plans for a shared development environment for U.S. intelligence agencies, cloud computing, and tech modernization.


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The CIO of the National Security Agency is focusing on IT architecture and what he calls a "cloud-centric" approach in the agency's effort to improve its information sharing with other intelligence agencies.

"Some people say we've just got to get some better tools. Well, tools come and tools go," said NSA CIO Lonny Anderson in an interview with InformationWeek at the agency's National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Md. "The key is architecture. You build an architecture, then it doesn't matter that tools come and go. There's no doubt in my mind that when we connect architectures, we'll never look back."

In its dual mission of signals intelligence (intercepting foreign communications and electronic signals) and securing the military's IT systems, NSA is a sophisticated IT organization. As head of NSA's technology directorate, Anderson works closely with NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, with whom Anderson served in the Army before retiring in 2001. NSA, like other organizations within the 17-member U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), has redoubled its efforts at information sharing with other intelligence agencies following the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009.

Anderson said he believes that technology teams in the IC can foster collaboration by working together on IT architecture and infrastructure. One such project, called "the Quad," is a joint initiative between NSA, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency to develop a shared development environment. A first step, underway now, is development of a role-based identity management framework to provide database access across agency lines. Developers are being trained to use the new framework.

Another cross-agency effort is the Integrated Intelligence Pilot, or I2P, which involves deploying software and servers on the IC's classified network, the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, so developers can share applications and run database queries across agencies. "Instead of taking data from CIA-specific or NSA-specific repositories, or FBI or DIA, you'll be able to query via the cloud into those organizations and ask, 'Do you have information that meets this question?', and they'll be able to say, 'Yes or No'," Anderson said.

NSA's CIO is optimistic that such efforts will lead to a new level of integration and data sharing. "Come back a year from now, and it'll be a much different discussion on what data we can share and how," he said.

Anderson is contemplating making some of the code developed for the intelligence cloud available as open source, similar to what NASA did with its Nebula cloud software and, more recently, the Office of Management and Budget with its Web dashboard. "I want to take advantage of developers not just across the IC, but developers everywhere," he said. A "security wrapper" would protect sensitive code.

Planning is underway to replace NSA's code-deciphering cryptologic centers in Texas, Georgia, and Hawaii, which house IT and communications systems dating to the 1980s, with three new centers. Anderson said he sees it as a "once in a lifetime" opportunity for IT overhaul. The centers' new IT infrastructure will include thin clients, wireless networking, and private clouds. "What we don't want to do is just lift and shift that legacy infrastructure and processes and ancient servers over to these brand-new facilities," Anderson said. "We're using this as a forcing function."

Thin clients should improve productivity, manageability, and security, he added. They will let the agency ditch the multiple computers needed by employees to access different security domains, while making machines easier to secure and more secure. NSA is rewriting some of its apps to work in the thin client environment.

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