GSA wins race to the e-mail cloud

Over a six-month period, the General Services Administration successfully moved 17,000 e-mail users to Google Apps for Government, a secure, cloud-based e-mail and collaboration platform.

GSA officials predict using a cloud-based system will reduce e-mail operation costs by 50 percent over the next five years and save more than $15.2 million for the agency in that time.

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Saving money is a major benefit of moving e-mail to the cloud. However, the original business case for moving e-mail was about more than cost savings. GSA officials wanted to develop an integrated suite of messaging and collaboration tools to meet the needs of an increasingly mobile workforce, said Casey Coleman, GSA’s CIO.

The agency’s e-mail infrastructure was aging and difficult to maintain. The legacy premise-based e-mail environment was distributed across 17 physical GSA locations, which complicated efforts to minimize service management costs.

The need to upgrade the e-mail environment offered GSA a unique opportunity to deploy cloud-based collaboration tools and use consumer-driven Web technologies to improve the agency’s communication capabilities at a lower cost.

GSA did have limited functionality with the webmail function of the legacy system, IBM’s Lotus Suite, that would let users look at their e-mail and do rudimentary tasks if they didn’t have their government laptops with them, Coleman said. However, not everyone had the same user experience and functionality.

With e-mail in the cloud, users can use almost any device to access e-mail, including home computers, tablet computers or Internet kiosks. GSA users will have the same experience, capabilities and functionality.

From a mission and business perspective, this makes GSA better prepared for any emergency situation — for example, if the power goes out or flooding in some federal buildings disables server closets.

“We are not vulnerable to e-mail outages as we were in the past,” Coleman said. “We are much more resilient and ready to deal with challenges that come up.” Coleman added that many of the challenges GSA sought to address were not tied to Lotus Suite. Instead, they were related to issues of GSA’s architecture and the complexity of the support environments with the client software.

Agile foundation for change

The GSA Office of the Chief Information Officer, in partnership with the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, outlined a strategy to procure and implement an agile foundation for change building on evolving cloud-based e-mail and collaboration technologies.

The opportunity presented by the relatively new software-as-a-service model also carried risks, as GSA would be the first large federal entity to move a mission-critical e-mail function into the cloud. The challenges meant overcoming a host of security, mobile access, training and change management issues that had not yet been addressed for an SaaS solution of this scale. 

“Internally, when we started this project there was a lot of discussion around different types of plans and how do we roll this out and what are the right models for us,” said Sonny Hashmi, GSA’s deputy CIO.

There was a lot of discussion about this being the first time e-mail in the cloud was being implemented at this scale in government, and because of the novelty of the move there were bound to be challenges in every aspect of the deployment, which ended up being true, he said.

One aspect of the debate centered around whether the project should be done over a 12- to 18-month period. The team and GSA administrator Martha Johnson made the call to set up a very aggressive timetable to make the move to the cloud happen.

The deadline for the internal rollout was Flag Day, June 14, 2011, a symbolic holiday to mark the agency’s migration to a new era. It really helped to have a date to crystallize a lot of the discussion, Hashmi said. Motivational conversations centered on racecar themes and crossing the finish line, so the internal theme of the deployment was “The Drive to the Cloud,” Hashmi said. That drive started in earnest after the holidays in January 2011.

A small group of IT pilot users tested the infrastructure, followed by almost 500 early adopters. The pilot users were 100 technical staff members who would be in the best position to identify and solve problems. The early adopters comprised all types of users — from executives to administrative staff — in all regions and offices. The final “Go Live” grouping was made up of the remaining 15,000 employees.

Authentication stayed home

“Sonny served as the program executive, and he drove a lot of learning around the issues of security and authentication,” Coleman said. Hashmi also helped draw the boundaries between which responsibilities GSA would retain and which duties GSA’s technology partners would assume.

For example, GSA kept the authentication function within GSA so the agency would maintain ownership of who was logging into the system, Coleman said.

A big challenge was linking mobile devices, especially BlackBerry smart phones, into the new cloud-based system. “Among all of the challenges, that proved to be one of the biggest,” Hashmi said. 

It is not as simple as just replacing BlackBerry devices to work with a new e-mail system.  The overarching goal was not just to provide a new e-mail system, Hashmi said, but to provide a platform wherein users could collaborate and share knowledge and documents in a new way.

This led GSA to rethink its entire mobile strategy for how to connect people when they are on the go, Hashmi said. This affected many areas: mobility, security, policy, acquisition and legal compliance. By taking the time to work through all of these issues, GSA is able to do a lot more with mobile devices than the agency could do before.

“We are proud that as people moved into [the new environment] they had many more capabilities than before,” such as access to documents from mobile devices, the ability to use tablet computers and the availability of different and more sophisticated types of smart phones, Hashmi said.

Technical issues during the transition included creating a temporary infrastructure so that up to 60 terabytes of data could be transferred from e-mail servers, specialized archives and local desktop archives to the Google cloud without degrading the ongoing e-mail/network systems. 

The team built 24 migration servers, 37 BlackBerry servers, and four new authentication servers. All of this work, and the data moving through the network, had to be coordinated and aligned to allow GSA employees to simply log in to the new e-mail system without the loss of data from existing e-mail and calendars. 

Cloud-side chats

A series of “Chats on the Cloud” videos featuring GSA leaders was produced to introduce the strategic themes of continuous innovation, simplification, collaboration and business transformation.

Although providing GSA employees with a platform that offers new ways of collaboration and sharing of knowledge from anywhere and any device was a major goal of the move to the cloud, cost savings is still a big piece of the migration.

GSA is saving money because it no longer needs to buy and maintain servers and software licenses and manage client software applications. A major challenge in the older environment was keeping up with the different versions of client e-mail applications running on different users’ machines, Coleman said. Some users had more updated capabilities; others had outdated capabilities.

The move to Google Apps for Government has eliminated that complexity, saving money in the process. The agency no longer needs a large contractor support staff to maintain all of this complexity. Plus, the agency can now deploy federal employees to other high-value projects, whereas before they were tied up supporting the legacy environment.

Savings in all of these areas totaled up to 50 percent of what GSA would have spent performing these functions themselves, Coleman said. 

With the implementation of the Google Apps for Government, GSA is just at the beginning of a process of expanding and optimizing the use of the collaboration technology that is rapidly evolving via the cloud model. “The outcome is the result of an exceptional team effort,” Coleman said, “starting at the top with the support of Administrator Johnson, the folks at GSA and the contractors led by Unisys, Acumen Solutions, Google and Tempus Nova.”


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