Cloud computing, Google Apps turn into an election issue

Lobbying, Google advertising, consumer awareness may all play a role

Washington state breaks ground this month on a new data center and office complex that two state lawmakers have called a "mistake." A better approach, they argue, might include turning over some of the state's computing resources to commercial cloud providers, such as Google Inc. or local favorites Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

"Software as a service is unequivocally the future, in my view," said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat. "The fact is that 110,000 state employees, all with their own heavily loaded machine, is simply not the long-term model."

Cloud computing is turning IT into a political issue. Voters might debate the need for a new fire engine, but they typically leave issues such as a new mainframe for the IT manager to sort out. SaaS-based services delivered via cloud platforms are widely used by consumers, who are asking why these platforms can't be used by government.

This consumer interest turns proposals, such a plan in Los Angeles to move to Google Apps, into issues that reach well outside of City Hall. Google is taking its Apps adoption campaign to select cities with a billboard advertising campaign launched this month.

The Washington, D.C., lobbying machine is weighing in as well. Citizens Against Government Waste, which has fought open formats and supported Microsoft in its antitrust case, warned today that Los Angeles' use of Google Apps could "negatively impact" taxpayers. A spokesman for the group said the organization doesn't discuss its donors.

A much broader, public debate over technology directions may put IT managers, such as Washington state's CIO, Tony Totorice, under a brighter spotlight.

Totorice is new on the job. He started just last month, having previously worked as CIO for the Los Angeles Unified School District. The decision to build a new data center with 66,000 square feet of raised floor, which is part of a $260 million state office complex, was made long before he arrived.

But the IT environment that Totorice took over illustrates why a shift to cloud and SaaS-based providers isn't likely to be swift. There are now some three-dozen state data centers within the immediate area of the Washington Capitol running thousands of x86 servers that aren't virtualized and are underused.

Totorice said his IT model is more along the lines of what Hewlett-Packard Co. accomplished when it consolidated 85 worldwide data centers into six. He would like to reduce Washington's data centers to two, one to serve as the primary center and the other as the backup, in heavily virtualized environments that rely on far fewer servers.

Using a commercial cloud provider, such as Amazon with its EC2, in lieu of state resources isn't possible "in any kind of a massive way" because of security issues, and also because of the many legacy applications used by the state, Totorice said. One of Washington's first goals is to standardize on Microsoft Exchange 2010 on servers the state will operate.

As far as switching to commercial providers such as Google, "I think it's something that ought to remain on our horizon," Totorice said. But he cited a number of issues, including security and legal discovery, that have convinced him that such services aren't ready for major enterprise adoption. However, if commercial providers solve these issues, "then they will be able to get to economies of scale that we won't get to," he said.

A Los Angeles governmental committee was due to take up the Google App proposal this week, but the meeting was postponed to an unspecified date, a city official said. About 30,000 city employees would move to Google's e-mail and, over time, migrate away from Microsoft Office.

Los Angeles sees some risks in moving to Google. In a report, IT officials warned that a move away from Microsoft Office and Novell's GroupWise e-mail system is a decision of no return. "It may be cost-prohibitive to return to the current city-owned and -operated structure," the report said.

The Los Angeles IT department has nonetheless recommended Google. It has said that Google's service levels "often exceed the current city level" and that the move will save the city money, mainly through the repurposing staff and servers currently dedicated to GroupWise. Any pain of moving off of Office will be mitigated by retaining Office licenses for a two-year evaluation period.

Security may be a bigger issue. Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, questioned how medical data in the cloud, for instance, can comply with federal privacy rules. "This is about your data living in an entirely different legal reality," she said.

Even the federal government is moving in this direction. It may not adopt Google Apps for the White House, but commercial SaaS services are making inroads, including, which is being used by Army recruiting, for instance. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra adopted Google Apps for use in the District of Columbia prior to taking his federal job earlier this year.

Deniece Peterson, the manager of industry analysis at Input, a government-focused research firm, said adoption of these external implementations will grow, especially if there are some big adopters, such as Los Angeles. "Those kinds of implementations serve as success models for other cities."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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