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Contractors say that all 17,000 General Services Administration employees have successfully signed on to a professional version of Gmail. The milestone makes GSA the first of roughly 15 agencies to move to cloud-based e-mail.
GSA completed its conversion from IBM's Lotus Notes software to Google Apps for Government, an online tool that employees can access anywhere on any device. Previously, employees needed to log on to the agency network to read email, share documents and chat.
In announcing the $6.7 million project last December, GSA officials said the shift would cut costs in half over a five-year contract period, partly by reducing equipment and staffing needs. With Web-based services, or "cloud computing," third parties manage information technology hardware and software on behalf of multiple clients at their own server farms.
Officials at Unisys, which led the project, said the Google deployment exceeds data-protection requirements instituted by the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act by providing two-factor authentication, a sign-on process that typically requires a password and a second piece of identifying information. The verification technology is from SecureAuth, a rival of the widely used RSA SecurID system that suffered brand damage when hackers earlier this year stole sensitive information related to the product.
During the six-month transition period at GSA, Unisys officials came to realize that the size of an agency's userbase is not necessarily indicative of the amount of work required to complete a job.
"Just because you might have 17,000 users, it doesn't tell you how much data there is to migrate," said Steve Kousen, a Unisys vice president and partner who leads the firm's cloud services group. At GSA, contractors were dealing with 60 terabytes of data, or the equivalent of 30,000 million typewritten pages, that they had to transfer without disrupting productivity at the agency.
To ensure stability, about 100 GSA technical staff tried out the system first and reported, in detail, on functionality problems so the vendors could resolve any issues before moving everyone else during later stages, Kousen said.
Outsourcing IT to the cloud is part of a federal effort to save $3 billion over five years by shutting down about 40 percent of the government's more than 2,000 energy-draining, real estate-hogging computer centers. On July 20, the White House announced it will close 178 data centers next year, after phasing out 195 by the end of 2011. As of April 15, agencies had flagged 100 e-mail systems that will be moved to the cloud.
Google is vying for a piece of the nearly $20 billion market for federal cloud services, along with Microsoft and Amazon. The search giant and prime contractor Unisys have set a target date of December for shifting 25,000 personnel at the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from various e-mail programs to Google's service, Unisys officials said. The Agriculture Department expects its 120,000 employees to be e-mailing in a Microsoft cloud by year's end.
IT experts consider e-mail the easy sell of the cloud overhaul, whereas agencies may need a few years of convincing before they are comfortable renting cloud space for storage, computing power, website hosting, and other backbone infrastructure.