In JEDI, it seems like the Pentagon is trying to foist a hierarchical command and control structure onto an inherently networked industry. This. Cannot. Work.
Someday soon, JEDI could enter the lexicon as something other than a Star Wars moniker for the good guys. If the tech industry and the media have their way it might become known first as a government procurement project mired in petty squabbling and endless lawsuits among the contestants. It could also become known as the wrong turn that tech took and never recovered from. If tech isn’t your domain, the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure project, known as JEDI, is a $10 billion cloud computing procurement project initiated by the Pentagon to upgrade its information handling capabilities.
With ten big ones up for grabs, it’s not surprising that any company than could spell cloud submitted a bid including Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle. But the process’ central theme of a winner take all selection process has left everyone refusing to take someone else’s “yes” as an answer.
On paper all of the majors have something significant to offer. Amazon is the largest cloud provider at the moment followed by the others who might arguably have better technologies. Oracle for instance has an advanced database technology that manages itself and self-corrects patching vulnerabilities as they are exposed without the need to take a system down. IBM has the muscle to support a big, hairy, complex, multi-year project like this one. And Microsoft has oodles of good, relevant technology as well.
So far it looks like the Pentagon picked Microsoft but Amazon, which was once in the catbird seat, is now contesting the award. On Thursday a federal judge ordered a temporary halt to the project in order to hear claims that Amazon was unfairly excluded from the award because of animus between Donald Trump and CEO and founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. Bezos is also the owner of the Washington Post, a national newspaper that has taken Trump to task for his many outright transgressions while in office. He’s also the richest person in the world having founded Amazon.com.
Ordinarily, I might root for Amazon in this case because the enemy of my enemy must be my friend right? I honestly wouldn’t care if any other vendor got the award too except for one important point.
Historically, giant procurements like this have been the way that government has spread some love around and fostered development of important new industries and made the country stronger in the process. The Space Program didn’t award a pile of money to a single company and JEDI shouldn’t either. The moonshot awarded contracts to dozens of big companies for things like propulsion, the lander, the rover, guidance systems, space suits and much, much more. Heck, even a Canadian company got a contract to build the boom in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle.
The reason the Pentagon isn’t going that route is the inherent complexity that would befall any attempt to get these big tech companies to bridge their walled gardens and produce one seamless technology suite. Like the moonshot was easier? As a result, no one wants to be the loser and not because ten billion is a lot of dollars. It is a lot of money, sure, but the bigger issue is that the Pentagon is picking what could become the leading tech company for the rest of the century and no one wants that to happen to anyone other than themselves.
The information revolution is at a critical stage. It has existed as a group of fiefdoms since the get-go, rivaling medieval Italy and Germany. Various vendors have published standards for interoperability but that seems to come down to telling the rest of the world how to genuflect before a specific tech company. It in no way supports real, live interoperability of the kind that the Pentagon might need to, for instance, fight a war.
As with the Space Program, the appropriate solution would be to publish a set of requirements and standards and ask the vendors to develop appropriate products. This might likely result in designating a prime contractor to herd all of the cats and that would be fine because that’s what prime contractors get paid for.
But in JEDI, it seems like the Pentagon is trying to foist a hierarchical command and control structure onto an inherently networked industry. This. Cannot. Work.
It’s not too late to change the structure of the award. In fact, when Microsoft was surprisingly awarded the deal ahead of Amazon, I thought we were on the way to having something very much like it. Microsoft and Amazon have the infrastructure thing figured out, Oracle has database, data warehouse, middleware and other stuff, and IBM has some cool analytics courtesy of Watson. Nobody is the best in the world at everything though they all have overlapping products which makes for a messy fight in the sandbox.
Perhaps this is all complicated by the animosity between Trump and Bezos, perhaps the Bezos team might have market share in a retail IT space but no real expertise in the complex environment that the Pentagon operates in which turned the decision away from them. Who knows?
What’s certain though is that the structure of the single award is likely to invite lawyers like a dead carcass on the side of the road attracts flies. Someday, JEDI, having failed to get out of the starting blocks, might be known as the place a generation of lawyers went to get rich. It didn’t have to be like this.