Moving more than a half-million email accounts to Microsoft Office 365 is a pretty big deal, but for the Air Force, it was just the first step in a journey toward an enterprise migration to bring a suite of cloud-based communication and collaboration tools to outposts around the world.

The Air Force Network Integration Center, or AFNIC, announced last month that it had completed the migration of 555,000 Air Force email accounts in the continental United States, completing the first phase of the $1 billion Cloud Hosted Enterprise Services (CHES) program. The Air Force awarded the five-year CHES contract in September 2017 to Dell EMC, Microsoft, and General Dynamics. CHES grew out of the service’s Collaboration Pathfinder program, which awarded a $296 million contract to Dell, Microsoft, and General Dynamics in 2015.

Next up is implementation of Microsoft’s Skype for Business, a platform for messaging, online meetings, conferencing, and collaboration, to be followed by SharePoint Online (collaboration software) and OneDrive (file storage, sharing, and synchronization). Eventually, collaboration services such as Microsoft Teams and Groups also will be added. The AFNIC also will expand CHES beyond Air Force bases in the continental United States to include those in the Pacific, Europe, and Africa, as well as the Air National Guard and the Pentagon. In all, some 776,000 users will be on the system.

“This is one of the world’s largest Microsoft Office 365 deployments,” Col. Doug Dudley, AFNIC commander, said in the Air Force announcement. “We’re driving the Air Force strategy to capitalize on commercial industry IT services, allowing our airmen to focus on operating and defending cyberspace.”

Email is often the low-hanging fruit for cloud migrations, and the initial step in larger cloud programs. An example of this is what the General Services Administration did when it became the first Federal agency to move to the cloud, starting in 2010. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, as the Environmental Protection Agency, another Federal cloud pioneer, discovered in its difficult but ultimately successful move.

The Air Force found its move to be challenging, but also revealed a process that could provide lessons for the cloud transitions to follow. Dennis Polansky, AFNIC’s lead program manager, said the email move put a lot of stress on existing systems, while also bringing previously unknown vulnerabilities to light. “We didn’t create these issues, but it was our responsibility to work with experts across the Air Force to correct them before moving ahead,” Polansky said.

Part of the transition was the work of a five-person program office at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., which built three physical security stacks to verify users’ identities and assist AFNIC’s migration. Those stacks were built between 2016 (then as part of the Pathfinder program) and December 2018, and are located at bases around the country. They will next be moved to the cloud in an initiative called Zero-Stack. It will eventually accommodate every military account for personnel at bases within the United States.

The AFNIC is also working with the vendors and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center on a roadmap for further transitions that comply with Department of Defense security requirements. “Although these innovative capabilities are commercially available, there are additional security and technical integration requirements that must be met before they are approved for use in the DOD,” said Matthew Schramm, AFNIC lead engineer.

“One of the benefits of transitioning to cloud-based commercial services is that it not only allows us to take advantage of current offerings, but it provides a foundation across the Air Force and Department of Defense to leverage future Microsoft Office 365 collaboration services,” said Markus Rogers, AFNIC executive director.

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