WASHINGTON ― A controversial Pentagon cloud-computing contract is drawing undue criticism, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said Tuesday.

The Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, cloud contract, a single indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract that could be worth billions of dollars over the next decade, represents the first major step toward a cloud-based future for the department.

But it has also drawn accusations that the way the contract has been formulated guarantees only Amazon or Google can truly compete for the work, and the decision to formulate it as a series of options has some arguing the winner of JEDI will have a de facto stranglehold on the Pentagon’s cloud-computing structure in perpetuity.

Shanahan, for his part, finds the lack of faith in the Pentagon’s plans disturbing. The deputy expressed frustration with characterizations in the press of JEDI as a sole-source, all-encompassing contract.

“The approach here has been really around a fair and open competition,” Shanahan said. “We want to create long-term, strong industrial partnerships, but we want multiple partnerships.”

The use of options for the contract means that after two years “we don’t have to go through the acquisition process again. If it’s working, extend it. If it’s not working, here are the keys, thank you. So when you say ‘winner take all,’ it’s also ‘winner take it all back’ after two years. … This is about for us preserving options, creating competition and scale, but also moving quickly.”

More importantly, JEDI represents, according to Shanahan, only about 20 percent of the Defense Department’s expected cloud needs. It is but a first step, and so even if one contractor finds success and controls the JEDI portion for the next decade, other cloud providers will have a chance to win future contracts.

Skeptics have argued that if the Defense Department selects a single cloud operator, it is unlikely to select a different system down the road due to challenges of having multiple systems connect — giving the JEDI winner a de facto monopoly for years, if not decades, over the entirety of the cloud-computing enterprise.

But that argument doesn’t hold water for Shanahan, who points to how quickly technology has developed in recent years as proof that simply because something hasn’t happened yet does not mean it won’t happen in the future.

“When people say, ‘Well, there’s not interoperability between different clouds,’ that is today,” Shanahan said. “The business model for the cloud operators is going to evolve. The interoperability of the systems [are] going to evolve. All those things that people say aren’t going to happen, we’re so early on, I can tell you it will happen.”

But while the Pentagon will be transitioning more and more to cloud computing in the future, Shanahan issued a warning to those inside the building who will want to make a switch simply because it’s the hot new topic.

“Everyone will say I want on the cloud. You’ll say, ‘Why do you want on the cloud’; and they’ll say, ‘Well, because the cloud is really cool.’ It’s not that the cloud’s really cool. It creates for you the opportunity to have more security, have better access at data, to get at lower costs,” he said.

“So what you’ll see is we’re not going to allow people to move to the cloud unless they can demonstrate they are going to retire the environments they’ve been in. Our intent is to be able to understand how we can distribute access and then take cost out.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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