In a move toward a more efficient National Reconnaissance Office, analysts for the agency operating the nation’s spy satellites are on the verge of getting their information through a top-secret open-source cloud environment housing intelligence data.

Jill Singer, the agency’s chief information officer, offered the latest details on the project at this week’s Red Hat Government Symposium in Washington D.C.

Now in the second of a five-year Optimizing IT Strategy plan, NRO’s team recently moved to the top-secret, hybrid version of what began as a private classified cloud. It’s also part of the larger intelligence community’s cloud migration and data analytics efforts.

“We knew back then that we would do our own (cloud) and we would have to merge and connect with other clouds in the intelligence community,” Singer said.

The cloud was set up in 15 months, with $13 million and an 11-person staff. The price, considered low for such a project, minimized the cost of a potential failure. If it had failed, Singer said the agency could afford to repurpose the hardware.

Singer expects the cloud to operate with full security accreditation by the end of October and will be in full use over the next three years. More applications will be moved onto it after an official launch.

The cloud was build to first provide enterprise IT and business applications, collaboration and desktops. The NRO already has intelligence community collaborators regularly using the cloud. The plan is to expand this collaboration space quickly so long as it does not disrupt operations, Singer said.

When the project began, NRO officials researched best practices within federal agencies already working on cloud-based systems, Singer said. Experts accelerated the process and helped avoid repeated mistakes. Developers also kept NRO stakeholders in the loop.

“I talked to anybody and everybody that would listen,” Singer said. The goal was to reduce the mystery of cloud to top NRO executives and to make them more comfortable with cloud computing.

The IT team began providing open infrastructure and platform services that could interact with any software on the network. A service-based infrastructure and platform cloud ensured top software development “brain power” wasn’t distracted by mundane maintenance tasks.

“We don’t need them trying to figure out how to be server administrators or system administrators. We need them building very high end scientific algorithms [to collect and analyze satellite imagery and data],” she said.

They also managed expectations and communicated that the move wouldn’t mean overnight changes. There would be no “light switch migration” with users coming in on Monday to a new environment, Singer said.

The NRO’s cloud is made up of several clouds. The agency is currently testing and operating a “pure” OpenStack cloud. A data cloud has also been launched for testing some high performance computing capabilities. This will allow NRO officials to understand what capabilities it can acquire on the commercial marketplace and what they need to build, Singer said.

NRO has done that before. In 2011, commercial cloud management software for use in a graphics processing unit (GPU) based environment wasn’t available. NRO worked with private firm to build some of its own and will make this a regular offering in the near future, Singer said. Originally developed to speed computer games in commercial computers, GPUs have been used to speed supercomputers and are now running powerful commercial cloud services such as Amazon’s cloud.

The NRO’s GPU cloud is currently in its proving phase. The agency has also worked with vendors to build a commodity cloud called Central Park and was able to keep the development price very low, Singer said.

For all the benefits, Singer said cloud computing is no silver bullet. Although there are some special capabilities in the NRO cloud to support its unique missions, technology and intelligence agency requirements prevent 100% adoption. Up to 80% of NRO’s work could eventually be done through the cloud, Singer said. But the overriding goal is to manage and run it like a commercial cloud with the unique ability to separate outside and internal NRO data and run in a top-secret environment.