LA's move to Google Apps is underway

Google's China woes no deterrent; City's pact includes Gmail encryption provision

Google Inc.'s recent disclosure that its systems were subject to a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack" from inside China has not deterred the city Los Angeles in its plan to move its 30,000 employees to Google Apps.

Los Angeles agreed in October to replace its Novell GroupWise collaboration system with the hosted Google Apps software tools.

The city estimates the cost of the change at some $7.25 million, but Los Angeles officials believe the move will save millions of dollars in software licensing, maintenance and storage costs while improving security.

The city launched the program this month with a pilot project that will see about 3,000 employees using Google Apps by the end of March. From that point on, Los Angeles intends to increase the number of city workers using Google App by 4,000 to 5,000 each week.

Last week, Google revealed that it had been hit by cyberattacks likely launched in China to steal its intellectual property. Google contended that other companies faced similar online attacks.

The primary goal of the attackers may have been to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Google has said that only two accounts were accessed but that the hackers were unable to see e-mail content.

Google last week said the cyberattacks may prompt it to pull out of the Chinese market.

Los Angeles spent months negotiating a contract with Google that includes a provision providing the city with unlimited damages if its nondisclosure agreement (NDA) is breached by Google, said Kevin Crawford, the assistant general manager of IT for Los Angeles and the person who is managing the transition. That clause aims to protect the city from a third party claim if personal data is release, said Crawford.

Crawford said the most important clause in the contract requires that Google to encrypt the city's data and break it into pieces when it is at rest so that no one can get their hands on a full file. If hacker somehow accesses a file, he will only see "a whole bunch of gibberish," Crawford said. The contract also bars Google from viewing any data without permission from the city.

Los Angeles data will be administered from inside LA's firewall by city staffers through an administrative console built by Google, said Crawford. "We have control of our portion of the data," he said.

Moreover, the data must remain on systems within the continental U.S. That can be verified via auditing by the city, Crawford added.

"We're going to have a more secure system then we have today," said Crawford, noting that Google personnel does more work on security "than we could ever afford to do."

Los Angeles isn't forcing employees to abandon Microsoft Office, since it already owns licenses for it. But the city won't be buying new Office licenses for the next 12 months, and then will assess with various departments about whether they still need it, said Crawford. "Our best guess is that for somewhere between 60% and 80% of the staff, Google apps will meet all of their office productivity needs," he said.

Crawford said the city has seen "significant interest" from around the country about its move to cloud computing. About 50 state county and local agencies in California have asked Los Angeles for information about its agreements, he said. More than 20 government agencies outside of California have sought information on the Google plan as well, said Crawford.

Shawn McCarthy, an analyst at IDC, Los Angeles also faces the significant issue of whether the system can maintain the records compliance and search capabilities needed by government. "I'm not convinced that your typical provider can meet all those requirements immediately," he said.

However, McCarthy said that in theory, a cloud system should be able to meet the needs and requirements of government entities. "But like everything else it needs to prove itself. Maybe the LA agreement will be the one," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, send e-mail to pthibodeau@computerworld.com or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed .

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