The Pentagon in Washington, U.S., is seen from aboard Air Force One March 29 2018. REUTERS/ YURI GRIPAS
The Pentagon in Washington, U.S., is seen from aboard Air Force One March 29 2018. REUTERS/ YURI GRIPAS

Washington - Microsoft is on track to catch up with Amazon.com by obtaining top federal security authorisations early in 2019, bolstering the company’s position in the Pentagon’s winner-take-all competition for a multibillion-dollar cloud computing deal.

The software company said on Tuesday it would earn the certification required to host the government’s most sensitive and classified information – a distinction held only by Amazon Web Services – by the end of the first quarter of 2019.

Microsoft’s announcement comes just four days before tech companies submit bids for the defence department’s cloud contract, which is widely seen to favour Amazon.

The project, known as the Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure cloud, or Jedi, involves transitioning massive amounts of defence department data to a commercially operated cloud system. Bids for the project, which could last as long as 10 years and be valued at as much as $10bn, are due on October 12.

Microsoft said in June that it was making progress towards winning top-level security clearance for the cloud.

Amazon Web Services is widely seen as the frontrunner for the Jedi project because it already won a $600m cloud contract from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2013. In recent months, Microsoft has been seen as a competitive alternative as it expands its work with the intelligence community.

The long and costly process to gain authorisation to sell cloud services to federal agencies can give technology companies a boost when they compete for state contracts.

Commercial cloud providers for the federal government must seek certification from the Federal Risk and Authorisation Management Programme (FedRamp), which awards approval based on the sensitivity of data the service is hosting.

A low-level certification might be sufficient for cloud-based services used to support public websites, while a high level would be needed to host secret government information.

Additionally, those working for the defence department typically need clearance from the Defence Information Systems Agency (Disa), which issues security authorisations that range from IL-2, for hosting unclassified material, to IL-6, for highly classified data such as national security information.

The Jedi contract requires cloud companies to be authorised to host data of all classification levels, though it gives vendors some time to obtain the necessary certifications.

Amazon Web Services is currently the only company to have achieved an IL-6 security authorisation, besting other competitors including Microsoft, Oracle and IBM.

Microsoft has already obtained FedRamp’s highest rating for its Microsoft Azure government business and an IL-5 through Disa. In October, it announced it was developing Microsoft Azure Government Secret, which would help it obtain the IL-6 authorisation.

Even if Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft does not win the Jedi contract, earning the IL-6 authorisation will give the company an advantage as it competes for other government business.

Bloomberg

Correction: October 11 2018

In an earlier version of this article the headline incorrectly said Microsoft had won the  Pentagon contract.