In the headline of a now-seminal Wall Street Journal article almost exactly nine years ago, Marc Andreessen, co-founder of venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz, Mosaic and Netscape, asked “Why Is Software Eating the World?” “Every company needs to be a software company,” he wrote then.
And in the intervening nine years it has become so. The litany is well-known, including Uber and Neflix and Airbnb and well beyond.
The message was simple and profound: “Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.”
Today, the federal government, led by the Air Force and Defense Department, is catching up.
No one personifies this race to the future more than Air Force Acquisition Executive Will Roper. “We’ve all seen, over the last 10 years, that software is now something that can change every week, every day. For some companies, hourly software changes are not unheard of,” Roper says. “You know how your app on your phone updates? . . . . Those developers are often getting real-time feedback . . . Then they use that feedback to update.
“We’d really like to be able to have software go out into the battlefield, get feedback from the users. What was day one of the war like? Change it, upgrade it and be different on day two. We have to adopt these commercial development tools that allow us to change software routinely but change it safely.”
Enter Platform One.
Platform One (P1), a security-first approach to building military weapons systems software, is part of the Air Force Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) family of systems. ABMS is an Air Force and Space Force program to develop software-based technology to operate the Joint All Domain Command and Control System (JADC2) network to enable fast, accurate battlefield decision-making by sharing data among all military services from all five domains of warfare: land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. ABMS is intended to “create internet-like data sharing across our Joint Force to fight at internet speeds,” Roper says.
In addition to P1 for secure software development, ABMS includes Cloud One for remote data storage, processing and access; a Data One library; and Device One for secure remote access to classified data.
PI is essentially a form of cloud-based platform-as-a-service with a continuous cybersecurity process on steroids. But, in addition, it is a fast, easy way into the cloud, first for the Air Force, now for all of DOD and potentially for all of government. P1 encompasses 55 basic ordering agreements so users can acquire services, licenses and cloud services within 30 days.
The Air Force has more than 45 programs on P1, along with those of other military services, defense and civilian agencies. Air Force Chief Software Officer Nicolas Chaillan says the IRS and the Veterans Affairs and Justice departments are among those considering using the platform.
“Once we demonstrate that the cyber posture can be improved, my hope is this becomes part of the accepted way to connect to the cloud,” Chaillan said.
But easing cloud adoption isn’t the key advantage of P1, according to Air Force CIO Dana Deasy: “When we announced [Platform] One, while people picked up on the word cloud, the big message there was we actually, for the first time, had designated a cloud across DoD that could be used for a common way of doing dev/sec/ops.”
DevSecOps—development, security operations—is a software-making methodology that combines fast software delivery through continuous collaboration, communication, automation and integration among developers and users with prioritizing security at every stage of the software pipeline.
Deasy emphasizes it because more and more, the Air Force has entered the business of developing its own software through more than 20 “software factories” around the service led by Star Wars-inspired Kessel Run in Boston and Kobayashi Maru in Los Angeles.
“The whole reason we want to write software wicked fast in the Air Force is that if we can’t our acquisition system won’t be fast enough to keep us ahead of countries like China,” Roper says. “Right now, we consider it fast to deliver code to the battlefield in three weeks. But you can imagine, as artificial intelligence becomes more capable, that software may be burner code every day of the war. You may need to update your code on day two and day three.”
Hence the Air Force is building software factories. In fact, Roper even considers Air Force programs like the new B-21 bomber to be software factories: “They’re writing agile DevSecOps code and they’re pushing the envelope on trying to do software updates faster than any other aircraft. . . . That team is trying to think about operational code coming at the speed at which operations happen.”
And here’s where Roper and Andreesen start to sound alike: “We want people in the future when they think of the Air Force ... we’d like them to say software first, that the Air Force is an awesome software service and they apply it to air, space and cyber.”
If the future of the Air Force is as a software service, can the rest of government be far behind?
And if Roper and Andreessen are right, then contract management becomes more and more the provision of tech like Platform One—quick and easy access to a cloud-based factory floor for developing code fast, securely, and in direct collaboration with folks delivering the agency mission, whether that’s war fighting or wildland forest firefighting or fighting pollution, pandemics, poverty, homelessness or budget deficits.
So it looks like software really is eating the government.
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