What is JEDI? Explaining the $10B military cloud contract that Microsoft just won over Amazon

The Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense. (DoD Photo)

Questions about the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract have been swirling since news broke late Friday that Microsoft has won the 10-year agreement to build the U.S. government’s war cloud.

How did Microsoft secure the $10 billion project when Amazon was long seen as the front runner? What role did politics play? How will the Microsoft workers already apprehensive about their employer’s government work respond?

Another big question, how will Amazon respond? The company hasn’t said whether or not it will appeal DoD’s decision but a source familiar with the situation told GeekWire that Amazon is “evaluating its options.”

But to grasp the larger implications, it’s important to first understand what JEDI is, exactly. Here are the key details to know.

JEDI’s mission: It started with a 2017 visit to the West Coast, which included a stop at Amazon and other prominent tech companies. After the trip, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis ordered Department of Defense officials to prepare a plan to modernize the department’s tech infrastructure. In early 2018, the Pentagon released its proposal, a 10-year, $10 billion endeavor to modernize the military’s IT operations.

Although separate branches of the military and intelligence communities had been cutting their own cloud deals for years, the new proposal outlined a unified IT approach for the entire Department of Defense, including classified and unclassified operations.

“The Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) lack of a coordinated enterprise-level approach to cloud infrastructure and platforms prevents warfighters and leaders from making critical data-driven decisions at “mission-speed,” negatively affecting outcomes,” DoD’s proposal said. “In the absence of modern services, warfighters and leaders are forced to choose between foregoing capabilities or slogging through a lengthy acquisition, rollout, and provisioning process.”

Microsoft’s task: Microsoft is tasked with overhauling DoD’s entire IT infrastructure, creating a globally available and responsive network, and providing ongoing monitoring of issues like bugs and breaches. The system must be fortified with enhanced cyber defenses and robust encryption.

One of the Pentagon’s chief goals for JEDI is the ability to apply modern computing techniques, like artificial intelligence and machine learning, to its defense operations.

The DoD’s proposal also asks the vendor to provide tactical edge devices “that can be used “for the full range of military operations.” Those devices are described as “durable, ruggedized, and portable compute and storage” as well as “modular, rapidly deployable data centers.”

“We are proud that we are an integral partner in DoD’s overall mission cloud strategy,” said Toni Townes-Whitley, Microsoft’s president of U.S. Regulated Industries, in a statement. “As was articulated throughout the JEDI procurement, the DoD has a singular objective – to deploy the most innovative and secure commercially available technology to satisfy the urgent and critical needs of today’s warfighters.”

What comes next: Microsoft’s victory over Amazon raises questions about the role politics played in what might have been an uncontroversial procurement process. President Donald Trump is a frequent critic of Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos.

In July, Trump told reporters that he was “getting tremendous complaints about the contract with the Pentagon and with Amazon … they’re saying it wasn’t competitively bid.” A few weeks later, his defense secretary, Mark Esper, launched a review of the procurement process, delaying the conclusion of the contest.

A new book written by a former aide to Defense Secretary James Mattis alleges that Trump called Mattis in the summer of 2018 and directed him to “screw Amazon” out of the contract.

Given the political overtones, Amazon could appeal the decision. The company questioned the DoD’s outcome in a statement on Friday.

“We’re surprised about this conclusion,” an Amazon Web Services spokesperson said in a statement sent to GeekWire. “AWS is the clear leader in cloud computing, and a detailed assessment purely on the comparative offerings clearly lead to a different conclusion. We remain deeply committed to continuing to innovate for the new digital battlefield where security, efficiency, resiliency, and scalability of resources can be the difference between success and failure.”

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