Last August, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis made a journey to the West Coast and met with Google founder Sergey Brin and CEO Sundar Pichai. Over a half day of meetings, Google leaders described the company’s multi-year transition to cloud computing and how it was helping them develop into a powerhouse for research and development into artificial intelligence. Brin in particular was eager to showcase how much Google was learning every day about AI and cloud implementation, according to one current and one former senior Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It wasn’t an overt sales pitch, exactly, say the officials. But the effect of the trip, during which Mattis also met representatives from Amazon, was transformative. He went west with deep reservations about a department-wide move to the cloud and returned to Washington, D.C., convinced that the U.S. military had to move much of its data to a commercial cloud provider — not just to manage files, email, and paperwork but to push mission-critical information to front-line operators.
In September, Defense Department officials announcedthat they would be moving onto the cloud in a big way. The Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, program has since morphed into a single contract potentially worth $10 billion over a decade, to be awarded by year’s end.
The competition is still in its early phases, with a request for proposals expected as early as this week. But the senior defense official said that the race is shaping up as a three-way fight between Amazon, Microsoft, and Google—with Oracle a rather distant fourth. While Amazon and Microsoft have participated in public events related to the contract, such as an industry event on March 7, and have reached out to media, Google has kept its own interest in the contract out of the press. Company leaders have even hidden the pursuit from its own workers, according to Google employees Defense One reached.
Google did not respond to repeated requests for comment about its interest in the JEDI contract. A spokesperson for Google’s cloud business did point out that they had recently achieved FedRAMP certification, earning the right to compete for government work.
Pentagon officials expect the losers of the JEDI bidding to protest, and so are limiting public conversations about it in an effort to tamp down perceptions of favoritism. Multiple officials said that Mattis doesn’t care who wins. He has handed management of the process to Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. The officials described Mattis’s priorities for the JEDI cloud as these: firstly, it must be both secure and resilient; second, it has to deliver information to warfighters engaged in combat (what is sometimes called the “tactical edge”), and third, it can’t take forever to build.
Previous reports have suggested that Amazon is the strongest contender for the contract. Its cloud business is the largest by revenue, and it is the only cloud provider that has already won business with the intelligence community. According to Pentagon draft requirements released in March, the winning provider must be able to handle both secret and top-secret information, which Amazon can do. But the winner will have nine months to reach certification—and Amazon itself developed the capability after winning important contracts. So while it’s a tall barrier, it’s not insurmountable. Also, the NSA has begun to rely more and more on their internally-built GovCloud, turning away from their Amazon-built cloud more and more.
The senior official cautioned against discounting the other top contenders. Microsoft has more established links with the Defense Department and is set up organizationally to be more responsive to DOD customer requests, which the senior official described as an attractive feature. And while officials have saidthat President Trump’s personal and public animustoward Amazon will not affect the award, it’s hard to imagine that it will work in the company’s favor.