The Pentagon’s JEDI contract is dead. Here’s what’s next for cloud computing at the DOD.

What to know about the intersection of big tech, the cloud, the Department of Defense, and Star Wars.

A member of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard in costume in 2018. Staff Sgt. Tony Harp / US Air National Guard

A program called JEDI was supposed to bring balance to the Pentagon—or at the very least deliver a functional, department-wide online cloud. Formally Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, the $10 billion contract was awarded to Microsoft in 2019, immediately embroiled in lawsuits, and finally cancelled on July 6. The short life of JEDI is equal parts a cautionary tale about military acquisitions, a lesson in legal obstruction, and a decent answer to the question of what it will take to get enterprise software in the hands of the military.

With a workforce of nearly 3 million in 2021, the Department of Defense is a giant entity and employer. JEDI, conceived of in 2017, was almost mundane in its ambition. It was to be the cloud provider for the whole of the Pentagon, a task in the commercial world performed primarily by big tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. 

The cloud is internet infrastructure at its most abstract. But, the ability of cloud providers to store and secure information, and make it accessible to many approved users at once, is the glue underpinning a lot of work, both remote and not. The Pentagon, which operates hundreds of bases across the world, is a prime candidate for a cloud provider, especially if that cloud can cleanly handle classified information and restricted access protocols.

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JEDI, launched in January 2018 in a memo so laden with Star Wars references that it was immediately retracted and reissued, looked to a single company to provide a cloud that did everything for the military. The original solicitation specifies that the cloud should be able to handle petabytes of unclassified data every few months. It is a problem that companies have solved for each other many, many times, though few entities operate on the scale of the Pentagon.

While JEDI was going to be big, it was hardly the only cloud used by the national security state. When the Pentagon announced JEDI, the CIA was already using a cloud built by Amazon, and the web hosting giant was the presumed frontrunner for the award. Amazon even had ads up in the Pentagon metro station in May 2018, part of a full court press to secure the contract.

The contract, instead, went to Microsoft, and then triggered a years-long legal fight over the fairness of how it was awarded. Pentagon contracting rules, especially for contracts awarded to a single provider, have a formal appeal and challenge process. Sometimes, the process helps make sure that a company promising an aircraft, for example, can actually deliver it. With JEDI, challenging the contract also meant freezing the entire process in time, as the military’s data storage and transfer needs evolved while the contract was unable to be filled.

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The long legal fight over JEDI kept the Pentagon from adopting one big cloud, and instead the military turned to a plethora of smaller cloud cities, often service-specific. The Air Force’s cloudONE met its needs for a modern cloud, while the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) turned to a range of other clouds. In total, the Pentagon operates 13 other clouds, though Acting Department of Defense Chief Information Officer John Sherman told press on July 6 that none of those clouds meet the Pentagon’s standards for enterprise services.

From the ashes for the canceled JEDI order comes a new, more modern bid to meet current-day challenges. In its release on ending JEDI, the Department of Defense announced the Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability (JWCC), which will be a “multi-cloud/multi-vendor” contract. If JEDI failed in part because it excluded all but one company from providing the military cloud, the new contract should be able to balance the competing forces in the contracting space. The announcement goes so far as to name both Microsoft and Amazon Web Services, noting that “available market research indicates that these two vendors are the only Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) capable of meeting the Department’s requirements.”

So, even as the Pentagon cloud heads into an uneasy partnership, the door is open for other companies to compete for the contract if they can demonstrate they are capable.