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Reinventing government e-mail: GSA accelerates shift to Web services

Jun. 21, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By TOM SPOTH   |   Comments
Casey Coleman, chief information officer at General Services Administration, has written a request for industry proposals for a Web-based solution integrating GSA e-mail and other online applications.
Casey Coleman, chief information officer at General Services Administration, has written a request for industry proposals for a Web-based solution integrating GSA e-mail and other online applications. (TOM BROWN / STAFF)

You're 600 miles from the home office, immersed in a critical negotiation when disaster strikes: Your laptop spills to the floor, the hard drive crashes, and you can't restart.

Everything is lost e-mail, address book, calendar, spreadsheets and critical documents.

Now, imagine if all those critical files weren't actually residing on your laptop at all. Instead, they exist "in the cloud," accessible anywhere at anytime from any computer, and easily shared among you and your colleagues.

That is how the General Services Administration sees the future of federal computing: a more efficient, less costly and more flexible approach that strips both files and programs from individual computers and instead makes them accessible via the Internet.

GSA issued a request for proposals last week for a system that would replace PC-based programs with a single, integrated Web-based solution for e-mail, instant messaging and online conferencing. Employees would also be able to create and store online word-processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations, and collaborate on those projects on the Web in real time.

Existing federal e-mail systems are "insufficiently adaptive and costly," wrote GSA chief information officer Casey Coleman in the RFP. Katie Lewin, who, as director of GSA's cloud computing program, led the effort to write the RFP, said the effort could serve as a blueprint for moving all of government to cloud computing.

Another RFP, first issued by GSA a year ago and re-released in May with tighter security requirements, seeks to move data storage to the cloud, essentially outsourcing data storage and allowing government agencies to eliminate data centers and spread the computing and storage load to distributed servers tied together through the Web.

"It's a very ambitious plan," said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "They're wanting to become the model for the rest of the federal government. When you look at the range of things they're talking about migrating e-mail services, collaboration and management tools to the cloud those are some of the activities that every federal agency undertakes."

Rallying federal agencies to the cause will not be easy and will require major shifts in mindset and culture.

The Obama administration advocates cloud computing as a way to save money, improve performance and free up resources.

But so far, the Interior Department is the lone Cabinet-level department to announce a broad intent to adopt the concept. Interior is trying to consolidate more than a dozen e-mail systems serving 80,000 users into a cloud solution, a move officials say will cut costs by 66 percent.

Security concerns

Getting other agencies with intense security concerns to follow suit will be challenging. Federal agencies such as NASA, the Defense Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have adopted "private" clouds that consolidate systems, but still keep files on their own dedicated file servers. Security concerns have made most agencies reluctant to move to public clouds operated by the likes of Google or Microsoft.

Education Department CIO Danny Harris told a government information technology forum last week: "I continue to ask about the security questions. ... We're ready to go to a cloud paradigm, like, next week if I can get that answer provided."

Roger Baker, CIO at Veterans Affairs, said handling private data Social Security numbers, health care profiles and more creates enormous risk. VA has already been burned when laptops with such information have been lost, stolen or otherwise compromised. Putting that information in someone else's computer system is risky, he said.

"I will never be able to give up complete ownership of the security of veterans' private information," Baker said.

GSA's RFP asks for robust security features, requiring that all data be stored in the U.S. and that all contractor employees who can access the data be subject to federal background checks.

The security requirements indicate that the agency is not ruling out moving to a public cloud or a public-private hybrid, Brookings' West said. The document states that "while certain basic requirements are necessary for our operation and to meet our security and privacy obligations, a good portion of the solution is open to a wide variety of alternatives."

But agencies guarding national secrets will not be satisfied; others, however, may find GSA's security specifications appropriate, he said.

Industry is optimistic

David Mihalchik, head of business development for Google's federal team, said he thinks federal agencies are ready to move into the cloud, and GSA's RFP will accelerate the process.

"I certainly think that GSA sets an example for other agencies that look to take this approach," he said.

Mihalchik believes that once Google's cloud computing technology is certified as compliant with the Federal Information Security Management Act, the floodgates could open. The company's FISMA accreditation and certification package is under review now.

"Our security model is equal or in many cases greater than the security model of agencies' existing on-premise technology," Mihalchik said.

Moving into the cloud would give federal employees 25 gigabytes of storage space for e-mail 100 times more than some mailboxes now hold, Mihalchik said. "Government employees are constantly pruning their mailbox and having to take messages out ... and archiving them to free up space," he said.

Mihalchik declined to comment on whether Google would bid on GSA's RFP.

GSA is asking companies for a solution that modernizes its e-mail, offers an "effective collaborative working environment," reduces the agency's maintenance costs and applies "appropriate security and privacy safeguards."

The agency explains in its RFP: "The existing e-mail and collaboration infrastructures at GSA are not adequate for the future. They consist of aging, site specific servers, with limited redundancy, and inconsistent archiving capability. In addition, the current e-mail infrastructure makes it difficult to manage and retrieve e-mails associated with legal matters. In-house upgrading, replacement, and deployment of new servers and infrastructure will be both expensive and disruptive to GSA operations."

GSA manages 18,500 Lotus Notes e-mail accounts right now and expects that number to grow as high as 30,000. The agency's e-mail servers are more than five years old and spread among 17 locations. If the servers at any specific site go down, those users lose access to e-mail until the problem is fixed.

West said replacing such outdated systems would be a godsend for federal agencies and employees.

"It'll make their lives easier," he said. "Most people in their private lives have e-mail systems that allow them to do a variety of things e-mail, calendar, contact lists and merge those things. The federal system does not allow for a lot of that beyond basic e-mail functions."

Related reading" target="_blank">Energy Department lab moving e-mail to Google cloud

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