Private cloud leads military's charge towards virtualisation

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
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor

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.

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