Federal government moves forward with 'cloud-first' plan for new technology

By Marjorie Censer
Capital Business Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 8:29 PM

The General Services Administration's decision last week to move its e-mail program to a Web-based system modeled on Google's popular Gmail program is part of a major government drive to increase federal use of cloud computing.

The GSA is the first federal agency to make the Internet switch, and its decision follows the Office of Management and Budget's declaration last month that the government is now operating under a "cloud-first" policy, meaning agencies must give priority to Web-based applications and services.

Government information-technology contractors, many of them based in the Washington area, have been anticipating the shift for months, trying to position themselves for future work.

The Obama administration has said that cloud computing will allow more people to share a common infrastructure, cutting technology and support costs. But some technologists have warned that Web-based software may not be as secure as systems built for a dedicated purpose. And the programs often depend on stable network connections.

The push for Web-based computing is part of a broader government effort to consolidate its 2,100 data centers by at least 40 percent by 2015.

Last week, GSA announced its decision to adopt Google's e-mail system as part of its decision to award a $6.7 million, five-year task order to Unisys, a Pennsylvania-based contractor that has an extensive local presence. Unisys is partnering with Google, Tempus Nova and Acumen Solutions to deploy and manage the system.

Casey Coleman, GSA's chief information officer, said the urgency to shift to cloud-based e-mail was because its in-house program depended on servers that were six years old, making it hard to find replacement parts.

"We have experienced some situations where it has come close to an outage that we could not afford to have," she said.

Under the contract, GSA will migrate 17,000 e-mail accounts to the cloud. The new system is projected to cost about half as much as the existing one to manage, Coleman said. In addition, the new system will be easier to upgrade.

Michael Bradshaw, director of Google Federal, said GSA users will see some similarities between their federal e-mail and Google's consumer Gmail, which should shorten the learning curve when the new software is introduced.

Federal officials said they hope that GSA's shift will encourage more federal organizations to embrace cloud computing for e-mail and other applications. Cloud-focused contractors, whose numbers continue to grow, are also hoping that the move results in more business.

Unisys, for instance, has had a federal cloud strategy in place for several years, said Venkatapathi "PV" Puvvada, the company's vice president and managing partner for civilian agencies.

"This positions us for other cloud-based opportunities," he said.

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