At least 12 federal agencies have shifted or are preparing to shift to cloud-based e-mail systems, with estimated savings of $100 million next year, government officials said.

The transition to cloud, or Web-based, systems is one of the top federal information technology priorities, mandated by the Office of Management and Budget in 2010.

Since the first agency shifted to a cloud system in 2010, federal officials say, they have seen millions of dollars in cost savings, greater inter-office collaboration among employees and increased security for the government’s e-mail infrastructure.

Steven VanRoekel, U.S. chief information officer, predicted that federal agencies will save $100 million next year in e-mail costs from the transfer to cloud services.

“I think $100 million is the tip of the iceberg on where we could go in savings,” VanRoekel said.

The General Services Administration and the Agriculture Department have both transitioned, using Google Apps for Government and Microsoft Office 365, respectively. The Army, the largest federal entity to migrate, has transferred 600,000 of 1.4 million e-mail accounts to its Microsoft-based enterprise. And 25,000 employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been on Google Apps for more than a year.

Other agencies are preparing for the jump.

The Interior Department in May awarded a $35 million contract to facilitate its move to Google’s cloud system. On June 7, the Federal Aviation Administration awarded a $91 million contract for its shift to Microsoft Office 365.

The idea is that many servers in one location are more efficient than dozens of servers scattered across multiple offices. The departments of Education, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the National Archives; and the U.S. Agency for International Development are all preparing plans to make the transition.

Agencies are already reporting savings. The Agriculture Department is saving $6 million per year since migrating 120,000 employees to Microsoft in late 2010, said Charles T. McClam, the agency’s deputy chief information officer. The department had been using 21 e-mail systems that cost $13 per account each month. According to a March 2011 report, the department lowered that cost to $8 per account, on one e-mail system.

“We wanted to take the investment cost we had already invested in e-mail and move to a more robust cloud solution,” McClam said.

He added that the Agriculture Department’s e-mails are more secure than before and that employees experience fewer instances of malicious code that could junk up a computer network.

“The key to security is consistency,” VanRoekel said. “When you’re in these disparate federal systems, you don’t have as many consistent guidelines and controls as companies do on one system.”

Google and Microsoft have more resources to deploy toward security, said Susie Adams, Microsoft’s federal chief information officer.

“We have hundreds of people working on it,” Adams said, “whereas an agency may have only two people.”

Security benefits

That allocation of resources is the strength of shifting applications, such as e-mail, to the cloud, said Alan Paller, research director of the Sans Institute and an expert on cybersecurity. Microsoft or Google could more readily add patches or security updates than could a single federal agency because millions of customers use their e-mail programs.

“The reason it is so much better is that it takes a lot of work to keep the operating system secure and the application secure,” Paller said. “You have to check for patches every day. You have to add updates. There’s a lot of work running a computer system, and it’s much better having centralization.”

Paller added that the cloud may not work for tailor-made computer programs that are agency-specific, especially if the buyer is not clear whether they manage security patches or the vendor does. But in e-mail, the security oversight is clear.

The GSA recently unveiled the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, known as FedRAMP, which standardized the minimum security guidelines vendors will have to meet to bid on federal cloud computing contracts. Those minimum qualifications will be verified by a third-party accreditation firm.

But for agencies with national security interests, the guidelines will be tougher. The Army has picked one model that has worked for it.

The Army is consolidating its servers, which are maintained by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). Before the cloud, each Army installation or office managed its own servers. Today, military and civilian Army employees across the world tie into one system.

“We’re really doing it a little bit by little bit. Our little bit is a few hundred thousand, whereas at some companies a little bit is 5,000,” said David DeVries, the Defense Department’s deputy chief information officer for information management, integration and technology.

“The Army was our first lead-in to take their existing licensed e-mail accounts and move them off of these different islands to an enterprise server in DISA,” he said.

The Agriculture Department’s move to the cloud has freed up manpower that can be focused on other computer technologies, such as improving or developing Web sites or mobile applications, McClam said.

The GSA is saving $3 million per year on its e-mail operating costs, a 50 percent reduction over the previous system, according to a cloud computing reform report issued by the U.S. chief information officer’s office in 2011.

It is cheaper for Microsoft or Google to maintain servers, because they have so many more servers and employees focused on the effort than the U.S. government, officials said.

The average government agency uses 30 percent of its server capacity at a given time, according to U.S. CIO figures. That in itself is a savings, McClam said. In the cloud, the Agriculture Department pays for the server capacity it uses, not what it has that might be sitting dormant. He compared it to using a utility such as water.

GSA first on the cloud

The GSA, the first agency to connect to the Internet, was also the first to shift to the cloud when it switched to Google Apps for Government in December 2010.

The Google system, through its additional features, elevates collaboration among GSA employees, who have taken to using instant messages, voice and video chat and Google groups, said Casey Coleman, the GSA’s chief information officer.

“What we’ve seen is increasing use of collaborative solutions,” Coleman said. “We’re working much more virtually all the time. People are using Google video and voice chat to talk with one another. It’s helping peers connect.”

To date, the GSA’s 18,000 e-mail users have created 400,000 Google Docs that are shared by an average of three people, Coleman said. Coleman said that in August, as Hurricane Irene approached the District, the GSA set up a Google group that allowed employees to collaborate from home.

Also, Coleman added: “We have not had any downtime since moving over to this cloud-based solution. On our old system, every month we had downtime to make fixes and upgrades on the server.”

At the Agriculture Department, e-mail downtime fell 99.999 percent, McClam said.

“The user, unlike they did before, sees almost zero downtime,” McClam said.

The Army is the most ambitious migration to date, with more than a million users, including some classified e-mail accounts.

The GSA is also preparing to add a cloud e-mail system to its schedules, the list of pre-negotiated contracts it maintains for agencies to buy various goods, Coleman and VanRoekel said. It should be unveiled this summer.