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GSA Moves Toward Cloud E-Mail

The General Services Administration joins other agencies in pegging e-mail as an early opportunity to take advantage of cloud computing.

The General Services Administration, the federal agency which manages public buildings and provides goods and services to other agencies, is beginning to plan a move from its IBM Lotus Notes e-mail and collaboration to a cloud-based e-mail service.

In doing so, GSA marks what appears to be the makings of a trend as it joins a number of other agencies and governments looking toward software-as-a-service for e-mail and collaboration. Among the others to take the plunge, or at least begin doing so, include the city governments of Los Angeles and Orlando, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Energy and a few of its national laboratories.

Vendors clearly see a market here. In some ways, governments are only following a larger trend: Microsoft expects half its Exchange revenue will come from services within four years. However, Microsoft recently rolled out a version of its Business Productivity Online Suite for governments, and Google announced its own government cloud plans last year.

GSA CIO Casey Coleman briefly mentioned the plans in an interview last month, but the agency detailed them more thoroughly over the weekend via its BetterBuy wiki, part of a pilot project by the agency's Federal Systems Integration and Management Center to test the potential uses of collaborative technologies like wikis and crowdsourcing to improve the government's acquisition processes.

"Traditional outsourcing and system integration support is insufficiently adaptive and costly and should be replaced [with] commodity services with a SaaS cloud computing offering," the GSA said in its request for information, which asks for details on SaaS e-mail, contact management, calendaring, collaboration, archive and backup, and e-discovery tools.

Currently, according to a statement of objectives also posted online, GSA uses IBM Lotus Notes 7 for its 18,500 e-mail accounts, Blackberry Enterprise Server for mobility for about half of those accounts, and a number of other Lotus tools like Connections, Sametime, and Quickr for collaboration. It also has the option to use a number of Cisco collaboration tools -- Cisco hardware and software powers the agency's voice-over IP implementation, which is in the middle of being rolled out.

That document notes that the hardware infrastructure for GSA's e-mail is more than five years old, and spread out among 17 locations around the world. E-mail archiving is "implemented inconsistently," doesn't meet the agency's e-discovery needs, and is growing increasingly costly to manage. Integration among GSA's collaborative apps "lacks the level of integrated features that is commercially available."

In response, GSA's looking for a vendor who can lighten GSA's maintenance load and help fill some of these feature gaps. "We are in the position where we need to do some serious updating of our IT," GSA administrator Martha Johnson said in an interview last month, adding that GSA needs to walk the talk if it expects to help lead agencies toward more innovative technologies. "I don't have the luxury of saying we're out in front of everyone, but I'd like to."

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