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2/28/2011
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VA To Migrate Email To The Cloud

The agency is seeking a contractor to move 600,000 employees to a hosted system through a project it's calling the "Big 4."

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans to move 600,000 of its employees to a cloud-based email and collaboration system in a comprehensive migration project it's calling the "Big 4."

The department is looking for a contractor to help it migrate its entire backend email system -- comprised of Microsoft Exchange and SharePoint servers, an e-mail archive system, BlackBerry software, and storage and back-up systems -- to a hosted cloud environment, according to a request for information (RFI) it posted online for potential contractors.

"Big 4" refers to the number of data centers that are required to host the system, which the contractor will own and manage for the agency.

The VA will consider hosting in a private cloud or going with a service provider's cloud infrastructure, but wants to entirely outsource management of the cloud, according to the RFI. VA staff will provide support for end users of the system but won't have administrative access to the applications.

Though the project is called the Big 4, there are actually nine separate sub-projects within it to handle each individual aspect of the new cloud-based system, according to the RFI. The nine projects the contractor will be required to complete include: Enterprise Exchange, SharePoint, BlackBerry, archive, backup, tape encryption, tape key management system, storage system, and network components.

The agency plans to use its existing Microsoft licenses for SharePoint and Exchange, acquired as part of an enterprise agreement. With the VA's existing relationship with Microsoft, the vendor seems a strong contender to be considered for the contract. Microsoft provides hosted versions of both SharePoint and Exchange as part of its Business Productivity Management Suite (BPOS), which other federal agencies are considering or using.

If it goes after the project, Microsoft may find itself competing against Google, which also has been actively wooing federal customers to use its cloud-based email and collaboration suite, Google Apps for Government. In fact, the two have already found themselves in contentious competition for federal customers.

In January, for instance, Google and reseller Onix Networks won an injunction against the Department of the Interior to block the agency's move to Microsoft BPOS for 80,000 employees. The preliminary injunction, which could impact future federal competition for cloud services, arises from a lawsuit the two companies filed in late October claiming that last year Interior did not follow federal guidelines in procuring hosted email and collaboration.

Email and collaboration seem to be among the most cloud-friendly applications federal agencies plan to reconsider as part of the government's "cloud first" strategy. The plan, directed by U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra in December, requires federal agencies to look at cloud-based solutions first when planning new IT projects.

In addition to Interior's stalled plan, the Army also plans to move a network of disparate email servers to the cloud in a move officials have said is the first step in a broader email consolidation across the military. However, instead of using a commercial cloud provider, the Army will host its email on a cloud managed by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

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