Ex-generals in Secret Battle Over Israel’s Project Nimbus

The Israeli government’s cloud computing project tender has been won by Google and Amazon – but the battle continues as Oracle hires big defense officials to lobby for ‘underground’ role in Nimbus

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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A server farm. The field of big data storage in Israel is exploding, in part due to Israel's new official state cloud, known as Project Nimbus
A server farm. The field of big data storage in Israel is exploding, in part due to Israel's new official state cloud, known as Project NimbusCredit: Alain Jocard/AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Israel’s Project Nimbus - the billion-dollar plan to create one cloud platform for the entirety of the Israeli state apparatus sans the defense establishment - was perhaps the most lucrative tender issued by Israel in recent years. It was won last year by Google and Amazon, however a secretive war is brewing behind the scenes involving former generals and disgruntled tech giants. 

The government’s decision to continue moving ahead with Nimbus as planned has angered Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Moscovitch. Moscovitch is the newest hire by American software tech giant Oracle, currently leading a global campaign against the Israeli government’s cloud plans. The goal: to pressure Israel to change its decision to concentrate all the government’s civilian digital information in an aboveground data center. They want the data - or at least some of it - stored underground. And they want to build the data bunker. 

“This is a serious security failure,” stated Moscovitch, who served as the commander of the IDF’s Computer and IT Directorate until 2016, and was in charge of the military’s technological infrastructure and cyber defense. In his opinion, the extremely sensitive data center server farm needs to be built deep below ground.

Less than a year ago, Oracle lost the Nimbus tender to Google and Amazon, and since then the company has refused to accept its defeat. Enormous amounts of money are involved – Google and Amazon are expected to invest about 3 billion shekels (almost $1 billion) each. But no less important, it is also a battle over pride, prestige and professional status. 

Moscovitch says his position on the tender has nothing to do with the fact that Oracle Israel has hired his services, and he supports an unground data center - one Oracle owns - because he is a “concerned citizen.” Two other retired major generals, Amos Gilead and Giora Eiland, also support his view. Behind the scenes, other former defense officials are also working on Oracle’s behalf, as are lobbyists, middlemen and media consultants – in an attempt to change the decision.

Construction site of Amazon's Israeli data center for Project NimbusCredit: Ofer Vaknin

Nimbus, named after the rain clouds, came into the world in 2018 – and at least a decade late. It was the joint initiative of the accountant general in the Finance Ministry and the Government Information and Communications Technology Authority, then in the Prime Minister’s Office and today in the Economy and Industry Ministry. The main purpose of the Nimbus project was to move all government computer systems to cloud based computing – except for the military and security systems. This would enable better and easier access, and remotely, to all the shared data. The idea was to make things easier for citizens, prevent the need to buy and manage specific computer systems for every application and to cut costs for purchasing and managing computer software and infrastructure.

In the first stage, an inter-ministerial steering committee was formed to brainstorm. Some of the many things discussed at the time were whether to store the government’s digital information in Israel or overseas; how the data would be backed up; how to protect the servers and their survivability in case of natural disasters, war or a shutdown of Israeli information systems; how to ensure the information was not exposed or leaked to foreign bodies in general, and hostile ones in particular. In addition, they studied procedures and precedents from other countries.

Officials in the Finance Ministry told Haaretz that the National Cyber Directorate, IDF, National Security Council and the Director of Security of the Defense Establishment were all included in the brainstorming process – even though Nimbus includes only civilian data and not classified information from security and defense organizations such as the Shin Bet security service, Mossad, IDF, Israel Atomic Energy Commission, and defense industries. The classified defense and security information is stored without any connection to civilian networks. Or in other words, the defense establishment has its own sort of private cloud that operates from very well protected underground bunkers and control rooms.    

At the end of the lengthy meetings and examination of the technical, safety, security – and in the end – financial aspects, the Finance Ministry issued an international competitive bidding tender in two stages. Five huge multinational high tech corporations took part in the tender process: Amazon, Google, Oracle, IBM and Microsoft. The bids from the last two were ranked low and were eliminated from the bidding. The remaining three companies went on to the second stage of the tender and in the end, Oracle lost out too. 

Oracle then appealed the decision to the tenders committee, while at the same time it began a steamroller campaign that included the company’s senior executives, including its Israeli-American CEO Safra Catz. The founder of Oracle is the Jewish American billionaire Larry Ellison, a friend of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last year, the Netanyahu family took a vacation in a hotel owned by Ellison on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, where he owns almost the entire island too. The media reported that Netanyahu met with Ellison during his stay.

Oracle’s appeal was denied in spite of all the pressure, but the company did not give up and appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court, asking to reopen the tender process. A few months ago, a judge denied the petition and ruled the tender committee’s decisions were reasonable.

Oracle then appealed this ruling to the Supreme Court. As far as it’s concerned, winning the tender of the Start-Up Nation’s cloud is an endorsement it must have. On Monday, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was scheduled to hold a hearing on the Nimbus project, but committee chairman MK Ram Ben Barak (Yesh Atid) decided to postpone the meeting because of a scheduled court hearing on the matter.     

Moscovitch claims the Nimbus tender did not examine “the security aspects from a national-strategic viewpoint and no consultations were conducted with the authorized and experienced bodies concerning the structures of the computer centers, with an emphasis on such organizations as the National Security Council, Shin Bet, Mossad, IDF and the production and procurement department of the Defense Ministry.” Put in simple terms, Oracle’s argument is that just as Israel’s classified security digital information is stored deep underground, its civilian data should be too. Oracle says that it is the only one with such underground server farms, which it bought from an Israeli company.

Treasury officials have rejected these arguments and say such discussion very much took place, and there was an “in-depth and long dialogue with the relevant security bodies.” The site Oracle bought is small, and in any case no need exists for underground storage – because according to the terms of the tender, Google and Amazon are required to spread out their storage facilities (three structures each) above ground and in a very wide geographic dispersion of dozens of kilometers, at the very least, said the officials. 

“That is how it works in other countries that built or are building clouds,” they said.

Oracle is trying to rebut these arguments by saying that Israel is different from the rest of the world, because Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas have missiles that could very well destroy the above ground storage facilities. Finance Ministry officials say in response that “even if no other countries in the world face missile threats, they build their storage facilities above ground, while taking into account the fear of severe natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes.”

Another issue raised by Oracle is the fear that Israel’s digital information will leak out to foreign countries. This is because Google and Amazon will only finish the construction of their storage facilities in Israel in over a year, and until then, during the interim period, the material will be stored in Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. 

Finance Ministry officials say in response that today too, even before the project is completed, some Israeli data is transferred to the cloud outside the country, so the risk of information leaking exists today too. “In any case, the core of the essential and critical data is located in Israel and will remain there,” they said. Google will complete its part of the project in September, and Amazon in April 2023, said the officials.

Responses:

The Finance Ministry said: “All the relevant bodies, and this includes the relevant security organizations, were partners in the Nimbus project from day one, and are full partners in it today, too. All the decisions were made by the authorized officials in cooperation and out of joint responsibility for this strategic project, in the aspects of the physical requirements concerning the cloud site too. As part of the project, a wide range of numerous requirements were defined in order to protect the government information to be uploaded to the cloud on the infrastructure of the winning suppliers. Moreover, storing data in a cloud overseas is carried out with the approval of a special committee in which the members are from the government organizations authorized to approve it. And this is still not a significant amount of data.” 

 The National Cyber Directorate said: “We have acted and are acting in cooperation with the Finance Ministry.” 

Amos Gilead told Haaretz: “I have never subordinated my intelligence or national security assessments to any interested party, and therefore I have turned down quite a number of offers for payment. I do not work on behalf of Oracle or any other party, but given my knowledge of the threats against us, I support underground protection. As for reopening the tender, I have avoided voicing an opinion for the simple reason that I do not have enough information for one side or the other. I am not involved in the business competition between the giants and I do not have the shills to deal with it. The bottom line is that given the reality of the ballistic threat in the form of drones, rockets and missiles, even just from Lebanon, underground protection is necessary.” 

Giora Eiland declined to answer questions from Haaretz, including whether he was being paid by Oracle. 

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