Air Force looks to cut the high costs of data

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Lt. Gen. William Bender, Air Force chief information officer. (U.S. Air Force)

Data storage is the U.S. Air Force’s second biggest expense after jet fuel, and budget rules mean that savings from closing data centers can’t be plowed back into the service’s IT, its chief information officer said Wednesday.

“This is a big problem, and it’s hundreds of millions of dollars a year,” Lt. Gen. William Bender, told AFCEA NOVA’s Air Force IT Day of the service’s data. “Arguably, it’s the second highest cost factor in the U.S. Air Force behind jet fuel,” he added.

That hurts the service, because even with the recent budget deal that lifted sequester caps on Pentagon spending, the Air Force, like the rest of the Defense Department, faces a throttling back of the enormous year-on-year spending growth of the last decade-and-a-half. The budget allocation for the entire department is “$17 billion less than what we said we needed,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said during a speech Tuesday.

“We couldn’t be in a worse place with the constrained budgets we’re living in because every choice is a bad choice,” Bender said Wednesday. He added those constraints were driving a search for IT efficiencies, like consolidating data centers and moving to the cloud. At the same time, he said the service wanted to innovate on a much smaller scale, wherever it could.

“Getting to the cloud can get us pennies on the dollar what we’re paying today for all the racks and servers,” he said, expressing his frustration with budget rules that stymied his efforts to plough those cloud consolidation savings back into new spending.

“The problem,” he explained, was a policy that said “we’re not going to take an efficiency in the budget process until its proven. And meanwhile, I can’t prove anything without the money it takes to get started in doing that.”

So far, the Air Force has closed about 80 data centers of the 1,400-plus they have catalogued, according to Bender, who believes the total is realistically closer to 4,000.

To boost innovation, the service is also pursuing what it calls “pathfinders,” or proofs of concept, to “think big but start small and then scale,” Bender said. The service has about 12 piloted pathfinders up-and-running, ranging in focus from access and identity management pilots to cloud projects and several different as-a-service offerings.

“It’s the approach [you take] when you have very little of this,” he said, rubbing invisible money between his index finger and thumb to the crowd.

In some facets, like cybersecurity, the Air Force has been able to strengthen its efforts just by shining more light on them. In the last year, Bender stood up a cybersecurity task force, which he called “a tremendous success just by taking action on doing it.” It’s an enterprise-level problem, he said, and “small amounts of money changed culture and policies as required to address enterprise Air Force-level issues.”

“It was conspicuous by its absence, the lack of discussion at the headquarters level on cybersecurity and the vulnerabilities in this space,” Bender said. “And now we have an ongoing dialogue at the highest levels.”

But there’s more to be done outside of securing just the branch’s central network and its traditional IT components, he said, like securing the “much more complex, interdependent system of systems” and other critical connected infrastructure and assets.

“We have to get past the Air Force network that is well defended and get after mission networks, which proliferate outside of that network in everything that we do,” Bender said.

But again, budgeting woes aren’t making that easy, Bender said, alluding to remarks from Air Force Space Command’s Gen. John Hyten at a Washington, D.C., event Tuesday. Hyten said none of Space Command’s $3 billion cyber budget last year went toward securing its weapon systems, while nearly all of it was directed to networks and operations. Some of that, though, has to do with those legacy weapons systems being developed without the forethought of them one day being connected to the Internet, he said.

Bender said with the cyber task force, he’s trying to address issues like that, often with less money and less manpower.

“I think we have to think different, to be very honest,” he said. At the end of the task force pilot, his hope is to “hand an enduring framework to the Air Force that has cyber as a constant, understanding that cyber is a fully fleshed out understood domain. We’re going to have a much better idea of the problem, and we’re going to have a laundry list of the prioritized investments.”

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challenges, Government IT News, Innovation, Management & Budget, Sequestration, William Bender