Data Centres, Governments and secret clouds

Late last week, Wikileaks revealed the previously-unknown locations of Amazon Web Services’ data centres around the world.

Wikileaks is, by its very nature, dedicated to uncovering and publishing secret information, and to many onlookers, this investigation will rank quite low in its list of shocking revelations.

But some of the details of the leak say some very interesting things about Amazon, and just how big business securing data is. The Wikileaks investigation states that though the location of some Amazon data centres are publicly known, this is a rarity.

Most of the firm’s data centres are owned by other companies, it says, with “little indication that Amazon itself is based there too.” This includes major data centre players like Equinix or CyrusOne. The retail giant goes further to hide its data centre presence, Wikileaks writes, saying that: “At its IAD77 data center, the document states that “Amazon is known as ‘Vandalay Industries’ on badges and all correspondence with building manager”.”

Nobody is suggesting that Amazon has done anything wrong here – the recent furore over the Bloomberg piece shows just how important supply chain security and government technology is. But it is fascinating to take a look behind the curtain and see how government technology infrastructure is run, at least in part.

The money in government tech

Helping governments, particularly the US federal government, with their technology infrastructure, it seems, is a very lucrative endeavour. That may be why Amazon has gone to such lengths to keep its data centre locations secret, but Amazon and its major cloud competitor Azure both also like to advertise their government credentials.

AWS last year announced the AWS Secret Region, which “allows storage of data classified up to the Secret level by a broader range of agencies and companies.” Bezos’ firm also operates a GovCloud region for US Government agencies hosting unclassified information.

In 2013, it inked a deal worth $600 million with the CIA to build a cloud for the intelligence agencies for information classed as Top Secret. And now, Wikileaks says, it is “one of the leading contenders” for a contract worth up to $10 billion to build a private cloud for the Department of Defense.

It is a testament to the power of cloud computing, to its preferable scalability and economics, that even the highest echelons of government, and even in the most secretive of environments, buyers still want to use the cloud. It’s not the public cloud that most of us know, but it is ‘a cloud’ nonetheless.

It’s not just Amazon that is offering these types of services, and it is not just governments that are necessarily buying. Azure has a selection of offerings specifically for government, but it also recently announced a “Confidential” service, which uses what Microsoft calls a “Trusted Execution Environment”; effectively a secure enclave, to keep customer data safe from any potential security breaches that might happen.

The diversification of big tech

There are many who say that in business, and perhaps especially in technology, it’s important to be able to do one thing, and do it well. There are so many crowded markets in the technology space that trying to be many things to many people is, arguably, doomed for failure.

But the really big tech companies, the ones right at the top, are to some extent showing that not to be true. The average consumer does not associate Amazon with running government computing; they associate it with delivering packages quickly. Most do not associate Microsoft with looking after secret files at the highest level of security; they probably still associate it with personal computing.

It wasn’t so long ago that the government looked after this sort of infrastructure itself. But it has reached a point where a few companies have got so good at it, it’s better off going to them. If Amazon, for instance, are good at one thing, it’s probably large-scale logistical problems, which is effectively what this sort of technology infrastructure is.

It goes to show that businesses develop in unexpected ways, and if you excel at something, all sorts of customers will come knocking.

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