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Google Goes to Washington, Gearing Up to Put Its Stamp on Government

By Kim Hart
Monday, September 29, 2008

The tall buildings in Reston bear the familiar names of big government contractors: Northrop Grumman, CACI, Raytheon and Accenture. Last month another name appeared, but not one that's typically associated with the federal market.

Google has come to town, though you'd hardly know it from its nondescript, newly constructed building in Reston Town Center. The only clue to the company's presence is a small listing on the building's tenant directory.

The company's 18-person federal sales team is still unpacking boxes, arranging bean bag chairs and testing the new massage chair. Over the past couple of years, Google has been trying to educate federal agencies -- as well as the companies that work with them -- on how its search, e-mail and mapping tools can be applied to government business.

It may be one of the best-known consumer Internet brands, but Google staffers still get some blank stares when they explain their mission.

"Sometimes they'll look at us and say, 'But what do you actually sell?' " said Mike Bradshaw, Google's head of federal sales, who has sold technology to the government for IBM and Microsoft.

Their answer is nothing. Well, nothing entirely new, anyway. Google wants agencies and the firms working with them to give "cloud-computing" a try. That means, for example, using Google Maps and Google Earth to visualize massive amounts of information, or using Google's search tool to organize internal data, and storing that information on Google's servers "in the cloud." The enterprise versions of the tools, which come with extra storage and security features, cost around $50 per user, per year.

Perhaps employees could use Google Docs, a word processor that lets multiple people collaborate on the same document or spreadsheet. Google-powered e-mail systems come with built-in spam filters and virus scanners, cutting down on server maintenance costs.

"Most people are used to this technology -- just not at work," Bradshaw said.

Plus, he said, think of the security risks that could be eliminated by storing an agency's sensitive data on Google's giant servers rather than on employee laptops, which are more easily lost or stolen.

Yet agencies have been wary of storing critical information on an outside server. IT managers have traditionally found it comforting to know all of an agency's data is resting on its own secure server somewhere nearby. And some systems integrators don't think Google's products are robust enough for defense or intelligence operations.

"They think that, because it's so easy to use, it must not be that sophisticated," Bradshaw said. "We take care of everything behind the scenes."

It doesn't help that Google doesn't operate like the typical Washington company.

Take its new space, a departure from the typical cubicle-filled offices of Northern Virginia. The conference rooms are named after famous Virginia natives, such as Patsy Cline and Lewis and Clark. The room named after Ella Fitzgerald contains a floor-to-ceiling photo of the singer. Nearby are big-screen TVs, supposedly reserved for videoconferencing. Meals are catered daily in the cafeteria. Vint Cerf, referred to as the "Father of the Internet" for his role in developing the network, has an office next to a cluster of Adirondack lawn chairs intended to promote discussion among employees.

Still, some state and federal agencies have become more receptive to Google's pitch, Bradshaw said, with 10 Cabinet agencies and several state and county governments using its tools.

Three months ago, all 38,000 District government employees started using Google-powered e-mail service, watching training videos posted on YouTube and searching through an internal wiki, called DCpedia.

The government also plots the locations of construction projects and broken parking meters, among other things, on Google Maps, so residents can see how many potholes are scheduled to get filled on their street or how many computers a neighborhood school received this year.

And all the work is recorded in Google Docs and Spreadsheets, which can be edited by everyone involved. That way, Vivek Kundra, the District's chief technology officer, can monitor the work flow for every project and hold employees accountable.

Shortly after assuming his new role, Kundra visited a dozen Silicon Valley companies to study their technologies. Google's applications, he thought, would allow various parts of the District's government to talk to each other.

"What I use in my personal life is much more advanced than what I had at work," he said. "Why wouldn't we invest in what all the employees are using at home anyway?"

Google's foray into government business is not only a sign of the company's expansion into other industries, it's also a sign of the changes underway in Washington's technology landscape. New firms are moving in, branching out and making deals, perhaps beginning to blur the line between the robust government contracting world and the consumer-minded firms that continue to take chances and thrive.

Kim Hart will write about Washington's tech scene every other Monday. After a two-year hiatus, the Download column is returning to chronicle the region's ever-evolving tech scene and the people who make it tick. Send tips tohttp://hartk@washpost.com.

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