With the spread of instant messaging, wikis, portals, and other communication and collaboration applications, email may seem old hat, but don't count it out just yet. Email remains a basic tool inside and outside of government. What's changed in the last couple of years is the decision by government agencies to move their email systems to the cloud.
What began in December 2010 as a push from the Office of Management and Budget has gathered surprising momentum, as agencies see the potential to reduce the operating costs of maintaining and managing on-premises email systems. Agencies are also improving productivity, workforce flexibility, and information security, according to those who have lived through the transition.
The integration of email with office productivity and unified communications software suites -- mainly from Microsoft and Google -- is making the great email migration a more strategic decision than it used to be for government CIOs.
A government pioneer in moving enterprise email to the cloud was the General Services Administration, which in December 2010 awarded a five-year contract to Unisys Corp. to migrate 17,000 employees using Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange from onsite email servers to Google's email and collaboration software-as-a-service. Since that migration was completed in June 2011, scores of other federal, state, and local agencies have dumped their internally maintained, server-on-floor email systems for SaaS versions. Among the federal agencies are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Interior Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Agriculture Department.
An illustration of the benefits of anytime, anywhere access to email was GSA's experience during Hurricane Sandy last year. "Sandy affected all of our GSA offices," CIO Casey Coleman recalls. "Our offices were closed, basements were flooded, and the electricity was out. If our email had been running from servers in those buildings, people would have been unable to work."
Having moved its email system to the cloud and having equipped employees with smartphones, tablets, and laptops, GSA was able to let personnel "work from home or from the local Starbucks -- anywhere with Internet access," Coleman says. "We were able to continue delivering vital services in partnership with other agencies to those who were affected by the storm. We didn't miss a beat."
Another benefit of cloud-based email, for the GSA or any other agency, is that it makes it easier to respond to e-discovery requests. "In the old system, it was virtually impossible to search [email] records across the entire agency population," Coleman says. "We had to search inbox by inbox. But with this solution everything is in the cloud, and as a journaling system it captures everything coming and going. So we can know with a very high degree of confidence that we have a much more complete response to an e-discovery request."
GSA is also seeing "soft dollar" savings that come with productivity improvements, such as the ability to process Freedom of Information Act requests more rapidly, Coleman says. Meantime, she estimates, GSA is realizing hard dollar savings of about $15 million over five years from no longer having to manage and secure on-premises email infrastructure.
A long-term benefit is not having to deal with the management headaches that go with onsite systems: crashes, cyberattacks, and patching, says Shawn McCarthy, research director for IDC Government Insights. "Those types of things can wear you down," he says.
Fruits of cloud first
Three years ago, the notion of moving email systems to the cloud was foreign for most federal agencies. Then the fed CIO at the time, Vivek Kundra, issued his 25-point IT reform plan, which mandated, among other things, that agencies identify at least three legacy systems to move to the cloud. About a dozen agencies selected email as one of their three projects, citing not only the potential to reduce operating costs, but also to provide more reliable services, complete upgrades faster, and acquire new collaboration capabilities.
Another reason that email was, and remains, an obvious candidate for the cloud is Microsoft's and Google's experience hosting email in the cloud, their cloud-based office productivity offerings -- Microsoft Office 365 and Google Apps -- and their ability to offer supporting infrastructure.