Private cloud leads military's charge towards virtualisation

Private cloud leads military's charge towards virtualisation

Summary: The militaries of various countries are using virtualisation and private clouds to cut costs on hardware testing, make it easier to maintain systems while deployed, and to make systems more adaptive to changing battlefields


The military is adopting virtualisation to cut costs and make its systems more flexible in the face of changing battlefield conditions, ZDNet has learned.

At the moment some military organisations — likely to include the UK's Ministry of Defence (MOD) — are using virtualisation and private cloud systems to consolidate their IT hardware platforms, saving money on equipment testing and easing management for troops on the ground, according to Geoff Higginbottom, chief technology officer of government and enterprise IT consultancy ShapeBlue, and a former real-time computer system engineer for the Royal Navy.

The militaries of various countries are using virtualisation and private clouds to cut costs on hardware testing, ZDNet has learnt.

"With the military, they need to deploy systems to Afghanistan and other centres and the guys in green aren't high-tech people," Higginbottom said at an event in London on Wednesday. "They need to deploy a solution that can be managed by boffins back in the UK."

To make maintenance easier, Higginbottom said the military is moving to appliance-style systems that are grouped together in containerised datacentres. These systems typically use hardened Windows server and virtualisation technologies and can operate independently of the hub in the UK. Sometimes they are even joined up into whole private clouds. 

Keeping it simple

"The idea is to keep it simple," he told ZDNet after the event. "Workloads are nearly always Windows-based."

By moving to a virtualisation format, troops on the ground can install templates onto hardware according to operational needs. This means a single system can be turned from a mail server into a geographic information display system and then into a file system.

"The idea is to have a sort of hot ready kit and go," Higginbottom explained. "Everything is installed, configured and can be left in a default state."

To make the systems flexible, a USB drive can be sent out along with them pre-loaded with templates according to different needs.

"The systems can then operate in isolation in the case of a comms blackout," he said.

And if a new template is needed, the "boffins" back in the home country can put together a specific configuration template and squirt it over a secure satellite link to the troops on the ground, send it on a drive or even manipulate the system remotely via a low-bandwidth web interface.

Though the military still uses some separate appliances for specific needs, it is keen to move to a consolidated hardware stack managed by similar systems, Higginbottom said. Along with this, it is keen on using virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to cut the costs on hardening equipment, as it would just need to stress-test monitors, their network and the VDI server.

This shift to virtualisation and consolidation is markedly different from the "old way" of doing things, he added.

"They used to design and build everything from scratch each time," he said. "Everything and anything had to have certain redundancy. Everything had its own redundant system and own patch system."

Windows trumps Linux for usability

Has the military contemplated Linux use? Higginbottom said he has not had discussions about it.

Because hardened Windows installs still have a graphical user interface, compared to Linux, which ends up being managed through the command line, Windows is more usable for the boys in green, he said.

"Most people on the planet can use Windows," Higginbottom said. "The guys doing first and second line support don't need to be Xen experts or VMware experts, they just need to know how to spin up a new instance."

He also noted that due to the scale at which the military operates and its tendency to enter into long contracts, "for them, [the] licensing cost of Windows is immaterial".

At the time of writing the Ministry of Defence had not responded to a request for further information.

Topics: Virtualization, Cloud

Jack Clark

About Jack Clark

Currently a reporter for ZDNet UK, I previously worked as a technology researcher and reporter for a London-based news agency.

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  • Taxpayer money is immaterial

    Oh well, it makes life easier for Stuxnet...
    • Believe he was talking in relative terms

      I believe he was saying that the cost of licensing is immaterial compared to other military costs. Eg - the cost of a helicopter is so vast compared to the cost of a slew of Windows licenses that, from military perspective, cost isn't so bad. Furthermore, I would guess that when you buy at vast scale and are a key part of government you can (I hope) extract major discounts from big vendors.
      Jack Clark
  • Linux is capable.

    The US Army is trying to do exactly the same thing, but with both RHEL and Windows. It's called the APC2 program, you should be able to google it.

    They should read Gunner Hellekson (Red Chief Technologist) on virtualization and the soldier:

    and this:
    Mark Boschier
    • Will take a read

      Excellent background info. I'll take a read. This is an interesting area and I'm hoping to do more on it. Cheers for the tip!
      Jack Clark
  • Jack Clark

    Sir do your home work you will any thing to do with the cloud is not safe at all and is in danger of hackers and i am sorry but windows 8 does not make it any safer to date you did not hear of hackers a lot not before the cloud came out and to what i read on the news is the companys that use it get hacked the companys are letting some one else do they to keep it safe and they are not and just because one thing is safe does not mean all of it is safe so i say shut down google gmail and all of the cloud thank Sir for your time
  • Really??

    "With the military, they need to deploy systems to Afghanistan and other centres and the guys in green aren't high-tech people," Higginbottom said at an event in London on Wednesday.

    I would like to know where this guy has got his information from, as I know a lot of high-tech people in the Military. Who are doing a better job at getting results, than the civilian organisations that are contracted to provide support to the systems they have built.
    If there are no "high-tech' people in the Military why are technology companies constantly poaching them.
    One of the main issues with Military systems is those who develop, design and deliver the systems very rarely have a concept of how they are used in anger and the external factors that the Military have to deal with whilst deployed. Commercial companies are too rigid when it comes to contracts that are usually tipped in the favour of the Commercial company, where as the Military requires speed and flexibility. Commanders do not want to hear that they are waiting for a change to the system to be made is sat with a commercial company in their change management process and could take several months before it is implemented.
    • Meant boffins at home, less skilled people on ground

      Hey Marti_b
      Elsewhere in the article he points out that the systems are managed by "boffins" back home. I talked a bit about this and he says, in his experience, military has highly technical people stationed at hub bases / back in the country who do remote management, whereas on the ground they have non-specialist administrators. As he is a former navy person, I think he was not meaning to sound remotely disrespectful, but was dealing with the realities of what he found in his own experience. However I agree that commercial companies (eg Logica) doing outsourced military work strikes me as a bit of a silly idea due to the reasons you point out regarding inflexibility and such. Thanks for commenting.
      Jack Clark