IBM battles Amazon over $600M CIA cloud deal

GAO protest decision expected in weeks

IBM Corp. is taking on Amazon Web Services over a $600 million contract Amazon won with the CIA to provide cloud services.

Big Blue filed a protest in February and has made three supplemental filings with the Government Accountability Office since them. The protest  are delaying AWS' plans to build the intelligence agency a private cloud infrastructure, the full scope of which is yet unknown.

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Ralph White, managing associate general counsel for procurement law at GAO, confirmed the bid protest to FCW, and said GAO will render a decision by June 6 – within 100 days of the filing as required by law. GAO can deny, dismiss or sustain the protest. If GAO sustains it, the CIA will have to do the procurement again.

Attorney Craig Holman, who represents AWS in this protest, declined to comment. Calls to attorney Jay Carey, the attorney representing IBM in the bid protest, were not returned by press time.

Amazon and the CIA both declined to comment on the protests -- just as neither would officially confirm the contract itself in March when FCW initially reported it. But the protest confirms the existence of the ground-breaking contract between AWS – the largest commercial cloud service provider in the world – and the CIA, which previously had implemented several smaller, highly specific private clouds.

CIA's major shift in cloud strategy – driven at least in part by the agency's embrace of big data as an intelligence tool – has been delayed before. AT&T and Microsoft protested the request-for-proposal specifications of the procurement in mid-2012.

White said GAO did not issue a decision in either of those protests because the CIA "took corrective action," pulling the procurement back in August 2012 and making changes to the bid solicitation that rendered the protests moot. It was not clear to which procurement those protests pertained.

The specifics of IBM's protest of the AWS-CIA deal are not known, but Ray Bjorklund, founder of Birchgrove Consulting, said cloud computing deals are protested more frequently than other government IT contracts because standard, objective definitions of this relatively new technology are still forming. Bid protest filings in general at GAO have increased annually since 2008.

Bjorklund, who was not familiar with the details of the CIA-AWS deal, said that given the scope of the CIA's solicitation and the amount of money companies would have to spend vying for the contract, a protest is no surprise.

"The sort of technology we're talking about here is a complicating factor in the bid protest decision, and from the government's viewpoint, it's been difficult to articulate what a cloud solution should look like," Bjorklund said. "These are two very large companies with very different legacies vying for their work. A deal on this scale, they're going to invest a lot of money to try to win it. When they don't win it, they have to make quick decisions."

Bid protests typically stall new deals, but Bjorklund, said the government can instruct a company to "proceed at risk" in matters of national security or emergency with acknowledgement that the company will be reimbursed for completed work.

Whether AWS has begun work on the private cloud infrastructure for the CIA is unclear, and details about exactly what AWS will be building for the intelligence agency remain hazy, but it isn't likely to replicate much in the way of existing technology.

At past speaking engagements, CIA CTO Gus Hunt was quoted as saying his agency wants to collect massive amounts of information and "hang on to it forever." Sensor data, data produced by machines including drones, social data and other forms of information are becoming increasingly important in the intelligence space, and the CIA wants to find relationships – insights amid the noise of massive amounts of data.

"It is very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human generated information," Hunt told an audience at GigaOM's Structure:Data conference on March 20.

While cloud deals involving intelligence agencies are rarely publicized – often because the contracts or language within them are classified – one recent cloud storage solicitation offers a glimpse of the technological potential the CIA-AWS deal could produce.

In that solicitation, the Defense Information Systems Agency will re-solicit bids on cloud storage for an unnamed intelligence agency after canceling a $45 million sole-source contract it had with a Maryland-based company. The unnamed agency wants an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance private cloud, scalable to several exabytes (each exabyte is 1 million terabytes) capable of ingesting known and future data types from sources like Defense Department intelligence sensors, drones and the U.S. Air Force's Gorgon Stare.

The AWS-CIA deal would cost more than ten times that amount, and presumably bring even greater scale to the intelligence agency's big data efforts.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

Reader Comments

Mon, Jun 3, 2013

Given the worst performance of IBM in other contracts, hope the judge dismiss IBM's protest.

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