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GSA’s move to the cloud: Shrewd cost-cutting or massive blunder?

by Dave Hannon

December 7, 2010

Dave Hannon

We all know that cloud computing saves money. I don’t have to list the cost benefits of cloud-based IT to you, the tech-savvy reader. And here in the U.S., we all know how big of an issue government spending has become. The mid-term elections were pretty much a referendum on government spending.

So why was I surprised when I read this week that the General Services Administration is moving its e-mail program to Gmail?

According to a GSA news release, the agency is spending $6.7 million to hire Unisys and a few others to deploy Google Gmail, which will reduce the costs to manage its e-mail system by 50%. “GSA’s cloud email award is in step with the Administration’s ‘cloud first’ strategy and demonstrates that agile, secure, reliable, and cost effective cloud options exist to rapidly improve agency operations and services,” said Dave McClure, GSA Associate Administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, in the statement.

The GSA says the 50% savings would amount to $15 million, which, by my calculations, would suggest the GSA planned to spend $30 million or $1,764 per user to support its existing e-mail system over the next five years. But I have to wonder what cost those dollar savings will come at. Is it possible to make Gmail secure enough for sensitive government use? Sure, it’s one thing for a company to make that sort of decision, but a government agency is a different story. On one end of the spectrum, the TSA is groping women and children at the airports and at the other end, the GSA is putting its e-mail in the cloud. Am I the only one that gets mixed messages here?

Will we be reading in two years about how the GSA’s 17,000 e-mail accounts were hacked into because they were running in the cloud? Are the folks over at WikiLeaks frantically buying more server space as more government agencies look at cloud-based software?

Security risks aside, I think the decision-making processes involved in this move has me equally concerned. Frankly I’m half-convinced the GSA is moving “to the cloud” for marketing value. Why do I feel that way?

Well, for starters the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies was spun off earlier this year from the Office of Citizen Services and Communications, which was basically the in-house PR firm for the GSA.

Secondly, they’re spending $6.7 million to save $15 million, but that’s assuming the project comes in on budget on time. Do you know many IT projects that come in on budget on time? Do you know many governmental projects that come in on budget on time? What are the odds that the $8.3 million return gets chewed down to say, $5 million? 

Also, the Washington Post reports that the reason for the move was because the GSA’s current e-mail system is running on servers that are six years old and it is becoming very difficult to find replacement parts for those servers. In fact, there has been serious risk of the entire system failing. That news doesn’t fill me with confidence i n the GSA’s planning and technology assessment capability.

I’m also a bit skeptical because the GSA created the “Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies” whose mission is to “play a leadership role in identifying and applying new technologies to effective government operations” and its recommendation for a new email system was, basically, “Why don’t we use Gmail?”

And lastly, I have to question the competency of an agency whose head maintains a blog about cloud computing in the U.S. government called—and I swear I’m not making this up—Dr. Dave’s Digital Doodle.  

What do you think? Is Gmail secure enough for the GSA? Are they making the right decision? If you have an educated opinion on this topic, please post it here. I really would feel better if someone could convince me this all isn’t as wacky as it seems to be to me right now. 

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Dave Hannon

9/25/2013 8:50:36 PM

Just by way of an update, the USDA announced yesterday it is moving its email to the cloud, via Microsoft.