Like once hip baby boomer parents who finds themselves upset by the volume of their child's rock music, DARPA, the Defense Department's advanced research arm, has fallen behind with the medium it helped pioneer. Despite inventing the Internet, a new online solicitation reveals that the agency seems out of touch with one of the most important recent developments in online technology: cloud computing.
In the solicitation posted today, DARPA put out a call for information about cloud computing, effectively asking private industry to teach it how to handle military information in the same way Netflix handles movies or Amazon handles books. The less-than-ambitious timeline calls for a cloud solution to military computing within three to five years, which would put the Department of Defense a mere five to 10 years behind private industry.
"In the civilian domain, cloud computing has demonstrated substantial benefits in development and maintenance of software applications. To date, the cloud computing paradigm has not been effectively exploited in embedded military applications, for reasons related to performance and correctness constraints," said the online solicitation. The document goes on to define "embedded military applications" as "command and control of a submarine, in-field data or information analysis and image data processing on board an unmanned aerial vehicle."
Ideally, a move to the cloud could help spark a revolution in portable computers for already weighed-down infantry soldiers. Currently, wearable computers, such as those found in the now-defunct Land Warrior System, have proven too fragile and too heavy for use on the front lines. However, with all the processing power and memory sequestered in the cloud, a soldier would only need a light and durable smartphone-like device to receive complex information about the battlefield.
However, even DARPA notes that security and institutional barriers will almost certainly slow any move to cloud computing. The solicitation itself notes that cloud computing systems rely on constant connectivity — a problem for soldiers operating in remote Afghan villages or submariners running silent beneath the waves — and mentions that the cloud necessarily involves increased information sharing, something a post-Wikileaks military will surely find rather unappealing.
The solicitation goes out of its way to avoid touching on cultural trends within the military that could inhibit the adoption of cloud computing, instead choosing to focus solely on solving the technical challenges.
"Some current military standards and practices inhibit the use of of cloud computing. DARPA's role is to remove technical obstacles to progress; hence issues related to existing standards and how they might be improved are of secondary concern," the solicitation reads.
Luckily, like some of DARPA's biggest successes, any solutions to cloud computing weakness that grow out of the military's cloud program could have immediate and important implications for existing commercial cloud vendors. In particular, any program that successfully compartmentalizes cloud data to military specifications would almost certainly help protect civilian cloud centers that find themselves struggling to balance the openness of the cloud with defense against increasingly virulent attacks from sophisticated malware.