Helping NRO Reach for the Cloud

USGIF’s NRO Application Service Provider Working Group provides recommendations


The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has traditionally acquired new computing infrastructure by hiring a prime systems integrator to build and maintain an entire system. Though this approach met the agency’s needs for many years, it can no longer keep up with rapid advances in information technology and cybersecurity threats.

The NRO is shifting toward cloud-based computing to become more nimble and introduce upgrades more quickly, which the commercial world has done for years. However, NRO perceived resistance from industry partners that feared losing revenue as it replaced a few large, system-level contracts with many small ones providing computer-based services over a network.

Nick Buck, co-chair of USGIF’s new NRO Application Service Provider Industry Advisory Working Group, addresses group members during a meeting at USGIF headquarters in late July.

“One hundred percent of the industry base believes this is the right thing to do, but a new business model is needed to show industry and government how to acquire and sustain capability in the new environment,” said Nick Buck, president and CEO of Buck Consulting Group and a retired Navy defense acquisition program manager. “The challenge is that defining a new business model requires industry partners to put their heads together and make realistic, executable recommendations.”

With NRO’s support, USGIF launched the NRO Application Service Provider (NASP) Industry Advisory Working Group (IAWG) in September 2014 to help create this new business model, identify potential pitfalls, and suggest ways to address them. Buck serves as one of the co-chairs.

“The group is off to a busy start,” said Keith Barber, associate partner for strategic planning at OGSystems, who co-chairs the NASP IAWG with Buck. About 70 people have joined so far, representing a wide range of small, mid-size, and large companies involved mostly in software and systems integration. The working group prioritized a host of topics and has already completed its first round of reports designed to brief both government and industry on selected issues. It also received positive feedback during peer reviews and in a briefing to senior leaders of NRO’s Ground Enterprise Directorate.

During the presentations to government and industry, “we heard comments like ‘superb,’ ‘outstanding,’ and ‘they told us things we didn’t realize,’” Buck said. “It was a great shot in the arm for the group. There’s a lot of momentum and a lot of increased interest from industry because they see that their voices are being heard.”

One NASP IAWG report delves into pay-per-use software licensing options. It suggests that “not one size fits all” and NRO “must fit the licensing model to the program.” The report describes how pay-for-use may make sense if requirements or workloads are unpredictable but that paying by the hour could be inappropriate if a program is “steady state for five years.”

Another report examines how to encourage government and industry to adopt an ASP approach. For example, the report recommends offering incentives to industry to perform “hard” tasks and reuse existing software. It also suggests the government celebrate early wins and hone accountability models to encourage program manager adoption.

In late May, the group was selecting topics for its next batch of reports, which it aims to complete by September. But continuing to have regular meetings with NRO will be just as important, Buck said.

The interaction has to be more than “throwing documents back and forth,” he explained. “You have to have a conversation.”

To ensure broad industry support, the group strives to not favor any one supplier over another. Offering NRO a range of options is considered acceptable but providing “the answer” is not.

“Objectivity and supplier neutrality is essential,” the group’s charter states. “Discussions must be vendor, supplier, and integrator agnostic, not just by product/company but also by architecture. Working group membership is responsible for ‘self-policing’ on this front.”

Buck said USGIF is ideally suited to be the group’s convening authority because of the Foundation’s focus on promoting the GEOINT Community as a whole.

“It can’t be any one company,” Buck said. “It has to be someone who doesn’t have a dog in the fight.”

The ASP IAWG is expected to continue its work until industry and government achieve a workable business model to realize NRO’s vision.

“The rule of thumb on working groups is that they should last six to 12 months but normally go as long as they are useful,” Barber said. “I believe we’ll keep going at least through the end of this year—and beyond as new topics emerge—but the focus could shift.”

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