Now that we’ve gotten the link bait headline out of the way, let me say first that cloud computing is in no way to be considered anywhere near as important to the death of Osama bin Laden as the actual people with guns and helicopters. Credit where credit is due.
However, foundational shifts in technology come across all fronts, and not every story is about business success or advances in personal conveniences; many of them are far more consequential (and sometimes gruesome) than we normally consider. Now, how can one make the case that cloud computing (in its entire manifold “as a Service” glories) was instrumental in the final push to find and put an end to America’s most visible modern enemy?
First, let’s be charitable and assume we were actually looking for him for the last ten years as opposed to the last two, and that the search wasn’t impossibly tangled up in international politics. Now, let’s assume he was, in fact, well hidden, “off the grid” informationally speaking, and surrounded by trusted confidantes, and we only had scraps of information and analysis to go on.
Of course, we always had a rough idea where he was: Afghan intelligence knew he was near Islamabad in 2007, Christiane Amanpour said sources put him in a “comfortable villa” in 2008, and it was only logical that he’d be located in a place like Abbotobad. Rich old men who have done terrible things do not live in caves or with sheepherders in the boonies; they live comfortably near metropolitan areas, like Donald Trump does.
But all that aside, tying together the intelligence and the operations could have come from new ways that the Armed Forces are learning to use technology, including cloud computing. The AP wrote about a brand-new, high-tech “military targeting centre” that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had opened in Virginia, specifically to assist in this kind of spook operation.
“The centre is similar to several other so-called military intelligence ‘fusion’ centres already operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those installations were designed to put special operations officials in the same room with intelligence professionals and analysts, allowing U.S. forces to shave the time between finding and tracking a target, and deciding how to respond.
At the heart of the new centre’s analysis is a cloud computing network tied into all elements of U.S. national security, from the eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency to Homeland Security’s border-monitoring databases. The computer is designed to sift through masses of information to track militant suspects across the globe, said two U.S. officials familiar with the system.”
Well, there you have it. A “cloud computing network” took down the original Big Bad. Wrap up the season and let’s get on to a new story arc. But wait, you cry. WTH is a “cloud-computing network”? That sounds like bad marketing-speak, it’s meaningless babble. Do we know anything more about what exactly was “cloud” about this new intelligence-sifting and operational assistance center?
A spokesman for the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which is where JSOC gets its authority and marching orders, said there was nothing they could release at this time about the technology being used here.
However, a few months ago, I had a fascinating interview with Johan Goossens, director of IT for NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT), headquartered in VA (probably not too far from JSOC’s high-tech spook base), about how NATO, driven in large part by the U.S. military, was putting into to play the lessons of cloud computing. He said, among other things, the heart of the new efforts he was leading were two-fold; a new way of looking at infrastructure as a fluid, highly standardized and interoperable resource built out in modular form and automated to run virtual machines and application stacks on command — cloud computing, in a word — and ways to marry vast networks of information and assets (human and otherwise) into a cohesive, useful structure.
Goossens’ project involved consolidating existing NATO data centers into three facilities; each one is federated using IBM technology and services. He started with software development as the obvious test case and said the new infrastructure will be operational sometime this year, which is “light speed by NATO standards.”
Some of this is simple stuff, like making it possible for, oh, say, the CIA to transfer a file to an Army intelligence officer without three weeks of paperwork and saluting everyone in sight (that is not an exaggeration in how government IT functions, and in spades for the military) or having a directory of appropriate contacts and command structure to look at as opposed to having to do original research to find out who someone’s commanding officer was. Some of it is doubtless more complex, like analyzing masses of data and delivering meaningful results.
What evidence is there that the U.S. military was already down this road? Well, Lady Gaga fan PFC Bradley Manning was able to sit at a desk in Afghanistan and copy out files from halfway around the world and any number of sources, so we know the communication was there. We know the U.S. deploys militarized container data centers that run virtualization and sync up with remote infrastructure via satellite. We know this new “targeting centre” in Virginia was up and running well before they let a reporter in on it, and it almost by definition, had to involve the same technology that Goossens is involved in. There’s only so many vendors capable of selling this kind of IT to the military. IBM is at the top of that list.
The Navy SEALs that carried out the raid were staged from one of these modular high tech remote bases; the raid itself was reportedly streamed via audio and partly in video in real time. Photos and information also went from Abbotobad to Washington in real time. That data didn’t bunny hop over the Amazon CloudFront CDN to get there, but the principle is the same.
So it’s possible to pin part of the killing of Osama bin Laden on the strength of new ways the world is using technology, including cloud. I sincerely doubt Navy SEALs were firing up Salesforce.com to check their bin Laden leads or using EC2 to crunch a simulation, but I’d bet my back teeth (dear CIA, please do not actually remove my back teeth) that they were doing things in a way that would make perfect sense to anyone familiar with cloud and modern IT operations.
We’ll probably never know exact details about the infrastructure that runs the JSOC spook show, since they don’t have anything to say on the subject and I’m not about to go looking on my own (wouldn’t turn down a tour, though). But it’s a sobering reminder that technology advances across the board, not just in the mild and sunny climes of science and business, but also in the dead of night, under fire, on gunships you can’t hear, and the result is death.
“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Mat. 10:34