Ask most Canadians what the military needs next, and cloud computing might not be the first thing that jumps to mind.
But modernizing how Canadian security officials manage increasingly massive troves of data could be among the most important decisions of the coming years — and federal officials have confirmed to Global News that “preliminary” work is underway.
“Militaries are reflective of the societies they live in and a lot of the sort of development of how we’re going to fight wars in the future is stuff that we see in society today, which is large amounts of data management,” said Richard Shimooka, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
“It’s taking huge amounts of information and organizing and storing it away, and then actually applying them to conduct operations.”
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Canadian national security agencies and the military sit atop hordes of data that need to be continually tracked, assessed and managed in order to support the operations carried out to protect the country’s interests.
Increasingly though, those reams of data aren’t being stored just in filing cabinets or basements or bunkers. They sit in the “cloud” — the digital ether that most Canadians likely know best as the safe haven for backing up old family photos or for syncing information between multiple devices.
As the amorphous nature of cyber warfare and cyber conflict have demonstrated over recent years, being able to gather, interpret, share and act on digital information is already a critical part of how militaries and national security agencies do their jobs in the 21st century.
Yet modernization has been a slow march for Canadian security actors, including the Canadian Forces.
“Some of our systems and processes are dating back to the ’50s. So [there is] crazy potential to upgrade that with not even modern practices, but to catch up to the 2010s,” said Dave Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and an expert in Canadian defence policy.
“It was a massive accomplishment to start using [Microsoft] Office 365 in recent years.”
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Speculation about whether Canada could look toward a cloud computing contract comes amid plans south of the border to award a multibillion-dollar contract later this year for the Department of Defense.
Last summer, the U.S. Defense Department announced plans to award a contract in April 2022 for what it now calls the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability.
That initiative aims to bring multiple American IT providers into a contract to provide cloud computing services for the military, and it replaces a single vendor program planned under the former Trump administration that was known as JEDI — the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure project.
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Last month, the Pentagon announced the JWCC contract won’t be awarded until December 2022.
Microsoft and Amazon are believed to be frontrunners for different parts of that deal, while Google, Oracle and IBM have also expressed interest.
Some of those firms are now also lobbying Canadian officials to get similar contracts in place here.
Which firms are lobbying Canadian officials?
Google, IBM, Oracle and Microsoft did not have any lobbying listings with national security officials in recent months, although all list cloud computing as among their broader lobbying interests with officials with other departments including Treasury Board Secretariat, Justice Canada, and Natural Resources.
Amazon Web Services does have recent records filed disclosing lobbying with national security agencies and officials, one of its listed interests being seeking contracts “with multiple government departments and institutions with regards to Amazon Cloud based solutions and related support services.”
The web giant also has job postings up for working on its push to get cloud computing into Canadian government departments, including an account manager. That role is tasked with “increasing adoption of Amazon Web Services by developing strategic accounts within Canada’s Federal Government National Security sector.”
According to lobbyist filings, Eric Gales, president of the Canadian branch, had meetings with Michael Power, chief of staff to Defence Minister Anita Anand, on Feb. 19, 2022, and one day earlier had met with the acting assistant deputy minister of Shared Services Canada, Scott Davis.
He also met with Sami Khoury, head of the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, on Nov. 17, 2021.
The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security is part of the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s signals intelligence agency and the body tasked with protecting the Government of Canada’s IT networks.
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A spokesperson for the CSE confirmed early work on the matter is underway,
“The evolving information technology (IT) world is moving to cloud-based services. We are aware that our closest allies have, or are acquiring classified cloud capabilities, and we continue to engage in conversations with them on security requirements to maintain interoperability,” Evan Koronewski said.
“The Government of Canada’s security and intelligence community is engaged in preliminary research, exploring the requirements for classified cloud services.”
He added officials are exploring “security requirements” with the Treasury Board Secretariat, Shared Services Canada, and the Department of National Defence.
A spokesperson for the latter also confirmed that the military is working on incorporating more cloud capabilities, though not yet for classified material.
“We recognize that cloud computing offers key benefits in terms of IT efficiency,” said Dan Le Bouthillier.
“DND/CAF is building its cloud capacity and has adopted a Multi-cloud Strategy with multiple vendors, namely Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, and Google.”
He added the goal is to “strike the right balance between agility and security.”
The website for Shared Services Canada, which handles IT services for government departments, states there are framework agreements for cloud computing in place with eight providers: Google Cloud, ServiceNow, IBM Cloud, Oracle, ThinkOn, Microsoft and Amazon Web Services.
Those will let departments contract cloud services as they need through those providers.
The U.S. military cloud computing contract is valued at US$9 billion, or $11.2 billion.
It’s not clear how much a similar solution for national security agencies here could cost.
Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Anita Anand have suggested in recent weeks that the government is weighing an increase to defence spending, moving it closer to the NATO target, which aims to see all members of the military alliance spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence.
Canada’s current defence spending sits at 1.39 per cent of GDP.
To hit the two per cent target would require approximately $16 billion.
That would be above the increases currently projected under the government’s 2017 plan to boost defence spending, which will see it rise to $32.7 billion by 2026/27 from $18.9 billion in 2016/17.