Inside the Air Force’s new use of commercial cloud



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Las Vegas — A culture shift is taking root in the Air Force around delivering ground software capabilities, driven by the Defense Digital Service encouraging the service to use commercial cloud for testing, officials said Monday.

An Air Force contractor has been working on the service’s next-generation operational control system, which would control the newest version of the DOD’s global positioning system satellites. But when the new code was almost completely written, it wasn’t working in integrated test, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves at Amazon’s re: Invent conference in Las Vegas.

“Decisions were made to essentially do your requirements flow-down while you’re coding at the same time and then hope that things would work out in the end,” Greaves said. “We learned very, very badly that that didn’t work.”

And it took too long to be able to test the code — weeks or months of refiguring aging hardware to create the right environments for testing, Greaves said.

The program’s engineers needed regular and reliable test environments to more rapidly to test the software, he said. The solution: build test environments in AWS Gov Cloud.

“It’s the first time that the DOD has ever used a commercial cloud for this type of capability,” said Eric Schoonover, digital service expert at DDS, during the panel discussion.

Before the decision was made to use commercial cloud to build test environments, the project was about to be cut because developers couldn’t do enough tests, Greaves said. He noted this decision allowed them to buy back schedule time and save money.

“The DDS folks really contributed significantly to what I call a major cultural shift within the Air force, and within my portfolio for delivering ground software capability,” Greaves said.

Right now, physical test environments take three weeks to provision, Schoonover said. But he said next month that time will be down to 15 minutes.

Schoonover noted that he was able to get a waiver to use AWS Gov Cloud by making sure he defined the parameters for the commercial cloud use. He noted the team doesn’t build in the commercial cloud, but takes unclassified artifacts it has produced and deploys them into the test environments.

About 100 engineers will be able to use the functional test capability within the next month, Schoonover said. And in the next six months, he said he hopes the whole program will be using it.

Greaves said the project has also ignited a shift toward more oversight on the software development side of the acquisition process.

“In the past we would essentially award a contract to a prime contractor… and their process for software development would be certified, we’d say, ‘just use it,’” he said. “Now we’re becoming savvy enough to ask very detailed questions.”

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Department of Defense (DOD), Departments