Google cloud-computing applications get certification for federal government use

By Steven Overly
Monday, August 2, 2010; 7

Google wants the federal government to use its e-mail.

The company earned federal certification last week for its cloud-based e-mail, calendar and other collaboration applications after the General Services Administration determined they met moderate-level federal security requirements.

It's the first cloud-based suite to earn such accreditation and serves as an impetus for the Mountain View, Calif.-based giant to ramp up its sales efforts in Washington, said David Mihalchik, Google's federal business development executive.

"We hear them tell us that federal employees are clamoring for the same technology [at work that] they have at home," Mihalchik said. "What we've done is to certify Google Apps so that government has an apples-to-apples comparison of their existing system and Google Apps."

Once largely absent from Washington, Google has expanded its reach here in recent years, mainly to lobby on Internet and antitrust policies. Its offices in Reston and north of Metro Center currently contain about 30 employees each.

But the notion of the federal government as a potential customer has only begun to take shape as lawmakers and executives look to cut information technology costs with cloud computing, a burgeoning trend whereby organizations receive IT services and software via the Internet.

"This is a new technology paradigm," Mihalchik said. And "Google is a cloud computing company."

That shift has been slowed by lawmaker concerns about data security and privacy, said Deniece Peterson, the manager of industry analysis at Input, a Reston-based market research firm that follows federal contracts. She said last week's announcement may ease some trepidation.

Google's certification comes as various media outlets have said the company is vying with Microsoft to provide e-mail for GSA's 15,000 employees.

The Federal Information Security Management Act, or FISMA, requires agencies to establish security standards for information systems and hold any vendors to them, said Sahar Wali, a GSA spokeswoman.

Wali said FISMA certification is not required in order to win the bid, so accreditation may not give Google an outright advantage. But it is required to implement a new e-mail system, and prior approval could shorten the time it takes for that to happen.

But even as Google beats technology giants likes Microsoft and IBM to the finish line on a cloud suite that meets FISMA standards, Peterson said not to expect others will go "quietly into the night because Google has arrived."

Microsoft and other incumbents still have at least one advantage: legacy.

"I can't say that I see market dominance for Google," Peterson said. "Those companies have a very solid federal presence and in many cases they've built the infrastructure for these solutions to reside. What they've done is just build up a line of business that leverages all of their core strengths."

As vice president of Microsoft's federal division, Curt Kolcun estimates his company's Exchange software is used for about 90 percent of federal government e-mail.

Microsoft is also pursuing FISMA certification for cloud-based software packages but has yet to complete the process.

"I don't put any weight in the fact they attained it first," Kolcun said, noting that Microsoft has been in the federal market since 1984.

Still, should Google win the GSA or another contract, that could prove critical to its future, Peterson said, because other agencies are likely to watch and see if the Internet giant can deliver successfully. That may be more of a catalyst than the certification itself.

"I think the market and time will tell," she said.

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