Minnesota moves e-mail to Microsoft's cloud

State turns to Microsoft's hosted business suite as part of effort to reshape its IT systems

Minnesota said Tuesday that it is moving its messaging and collaboration services to Microsoft's cloud computing platform in an effort to address multiple issues -- including an aging workforce, increasing red ink and a desire for shared services.

Approximately 33,000 state workers in Minnesota will be affected by the move, which could be one of the largest public sector migrations to a cloud platform.

The City of Los Angeles late last year agreed to shift about 30,000 employees to Google Apps from the Novell GroupWise collaboration system.

The state of Colorado decided this year to make Google Apps available to state agencies and local governments. The potential user base may be as large as 45,000, but the migration is optional for government workers and only a fraction are expected to sign up in the initial years of the effort.

Minnesota's decision follows an 18-month project to consolidate some 30 messaging environments, which included GroupWise and Lotus Notes, as well as multiple Microsoft Exchange versions, to a single Exchange platform. Now the applications will move to the cloud via Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite.

Because of the initial move to consolidate on Microsoft systems, the cloud migration will be virtually seamless to employees, Minnesota officials said.

Minnesota officials aren't disclosing any projected cost savings figures. While the shift to the cloud is expected to cut costs, the ultimate savings amount may depend on how many city and county governments sign-up for it as well.

Officials said the state did not seek bids, or requests for proposals, for a cloud computing system as Microsoft hosted suite was already a standard part of the earlier large licensing contract signed to consolidate the messaging systems.

Officials listed several reasons for the move to the cloud, including cost savings as it deals with projected budget deficits and the loss of experienced state workers, which Gophal Khanna, the state CIO, called a "bigger challenge" for Minnesota. Some 50% of the state's workforce will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, "which creates a huge risk in [administering] government services," he said.

Los Angeles, as part of its contract with Google, is requiring that its e-mail remain in U.S.-based Google data centers. Minnesota has a similar agreement with Microsoft. The cloud service will be hosted in the U.S., with disaster recovery capabilities across multiple data centers in different locations, and a dedicated environment that cannot be accessed by other Microsoft customers, said state officials.

The adoption of cloud computing is part of overall effort in Minnesota to restructure from the silo approaches that led over time to more than two dozen messaging systems to a more horizontal system that offers shared services, said Khanna.

Minnesota isn't new to cloud or Software as a Service-based (SaaS) applications. It already uses SaaS-based systems for CRM and tax related applications, vendor credit card processing gateways and other services.

The state may continue to expand its use of this approach, and may offer Microsoft Office products, such as Word, from the cloud as well.

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, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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