By Katherine Owens -- Warrior Maven Editorial Fellow
“You are among the first to be transitioning to Flank Speed M365”
(Washington D.C.) In coming weeks, that sentence will be emailed to 266,000 Navy personnel. It will be the first of many emails sent to Navy sailors, both active duty and reserves, civilians and contractors announcing the latest milestone of Navy’s transition to the cloud.
Data collection and storage is crucial to each facet of the Navy’s mission. From operating the Navy’s largest aircraft carriers to ensuring that personnel records are securely maintained, data is at the core of the digital transformation of the Navy.
“Putting data at the center of our decision making and transforming how we innovate, deliver new capabilities, and conduct business operations,” states the 2021-2025 Naval Sea Systems Warfare Strategic Plan. “The transformation of our digital capabilities will affect every aspect of our enterprise.”
A major component of the Navy’s digital transformation has been transitioning data storage to the cloud. Joe Gradisher, a Public Affairs Officer for the Navy, told Warrior Maven, “Navy, like all the other services, has been trying to move to the cloud. [Cloud] is more secure, has more storage and the ability to do more things.”
The evolution of the Flank Speed M365 Cloud was aided by the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented need for remote network and data access. To address this over the past year, DoD used the Commercial Virtual Remote (CVR) environment across all the service branches. The CVR platform allowed remote access to applications essential for virtual work, including Microsoft Teams.
However, Gradisher explains, “[CVR] was never meant to be a long-term solution, it was stood up just as a result of the increase in personnel teleworking.” That’s why starting on June 1, 2021, Navy personnel will gain access to the latest in cloud environment innovations: Flank Speed M365. The Flank Speed Microsoft 365 (M365) platform represents the future of secure cloud data storage for the Navy.
Flank Speed M365, nicknamed "Flank Speed” or “Flank Speed Cloud,” is a secure cloud productivity environment. It is being implemented using a phased approach, so on June 1st, the first 266,000 personnel will be notified that they can login to their Flank Speed accounts. Those users will be familiar with most of the tools initially accessible to them, as Flank Speed hosts Microsoft applications such as Outlook email service, OneDrive storage, and Teams. However, a major difference that Gradisher notes will be the 1 terabyte of storage designated to every single user. Gradisher explains, “the limitations of the software we’ve had over the past year is that our email would get full because we didn’t have enough storage space and we didn’t have the file space.”
Not only will Navy personnel have the capacity to store more data, but the increased security of Flank Speed means that stored data can be more sensitive now as well. “That’s a key part of this, says Gradisher, “You just have to open a newspaper or go on a website to see the problems with cybersecurity today. Flank Speed gives us increased security and control of the application.”
Flank Speed has the security capacity for Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) and is Impact Level (IL) 5. According to the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) Cloud Computing Security Requirements Guide, an IL classification is based on the combination of the sensitivity of the data being stored and processed in the cloud and “the potential impact of an event that results in the loss of confidentiality, integrity or availability of that information.”
One reason for the increased security Flank Speed offers is that rather than being commercially-operated for Navy use as CVR was, Flank Speed will be Navy-used and Navy-operated. This aligns with the new Cloud Policy signed into effect by the Navy’s Chief Information Officer about six months ago.
For the Navy, the new policy represents a shift away from cloud service acquisition that was dispersed across different Navy offices and contracts. Instead, cloud services will be the responsibility of a single office, Program Executive Office for Digital and Enterprise Services (PEO Digital), thereby increasing oversight of the cloud services used by the Navy for both funding and security purposes.
“One of the great lessons that we’ve learned was that when cloud was wrapped up within [other
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contracts], it created risk to the Department of Navy in understanding where our data was and how security was being implemented,” explained Travis Methvin, Project Manager at Naval Commercial Cloud Services.
Flank Speed can also offer heightened security to Navy personnel because of the nature of the cloud itself. The “cloud” refers to the system of processing and storing data in massive servers or data centers with computational ability far beyond that of a single agency’s servers. Cloud servers are operated by cloud providers, such as Google or Microsoft, and are housed in data centers across the United States.
Cloud users access their data on these servers via any internet connection. Though it requires
sophisticated computer hardware, according to Microsoft, the key to cloud security is constant software innovation.
“One of the fundamental things people should realize about cloud service providers is that security and compliance is really core,” explains Doug Cahill, a senior cybersecurity analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, Inc.
The cloud “came of age” in an environment where cybersecurity threats were already a constant reality. Therefore, security measures have been part of the cloud software from day one and because it is a virtual environment, cloud developers are constantly able to innovate and adapt their software to counter the latest threats.
Microsoft Azure, the most hardened cloud service offered by Microsoft, benefits from data collected from hundreds of thousands of cyberattacks attempted every day. As it thwarts these attacks Microsoft and other cloud service providers are able to study them to develop new security measures and preventative software. An enterprise such as the Navy is devoting resources to managing personnel, developing weapons systems, physical security of bases, strategic operations across the world, and many other tasks. When Navy entrusts data processing and storage to the cloud, it means that 100 percent of Microsoft Azure’s resources are devoted to securing that data, a Microsoft Azure senior official explains.
It is this innovation and protection that Flank Speed will bring starting on June 1 st . According to
Gradisher, by FY22 “everybody that has a Navy account–that’s all Sailors, all officers, all civilians, all contractors that work for the Navy are going to be moving into Flank Speed.” That means Flank Speed will be coming to Navy’s biggest platforms, including aircraft carriers and amphibious vehicles.
A report written by the RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI) for the Navy predicted that the number of sensor platforms operated by the Navy on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) alone would almost double between FY12 and FY20. Each sensor on these platforms is a source of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data, which provides key spatial, atmospheric, and tracking information to vessels from submarines, to amphibious transport ships, to guided missile destroyers. As the report states, “Navy sees data collected through ISR as essential to situational awareness, which it considers a vital technological advantage.” However, the Navy’s sensory data is only as valuable as its ability to process it.
That is why Flank Speed and other Navy cloud integrations are so significant. When onboard
computational systems are flooded with data, whether it’s stored emails or ISR data, Navy analysts are not able to effectively process it and translate it into the strategic advantage the ISR technology promises to deliver. Access to the storage and high-caliber processing capability of the cloud could solve that problem.
According to the NDRI report, Navy’s full transition to the cloud could mean that “all organic sensor data are ingested and then forwarded, on demand, to shore-based clouds. This would enable distributed alerting and analytics initiated by strategic and tactical users. The goal is to exponentially increase the operational relevance of remotely collected sensor data. These data would be discoverable and forwarded on a per-request basis.”
Flank Speed Cloud gets its name from the nautical order for full engine speed used to evade danger and it is a fitting name. With every Navy sailor, officer, and civilian who logs into their Flank Speed account for the first time, the Navy comes that much closer to outrunning and outperforming its rivals for decades to come.
Katherine Owens is an Editorial Fellow at Warrior Maven. She previously wrote for Defense Systems and holds a B.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University, where she studied security policy and specialized in arms control and nuclear deterrence. Katherine will be attending Columbia University in Fall 2021 where she will pursue an M.A. in Political Science from the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.