L.A. still projects benefits from a move to Google Apps, report says

Administrator cites Google's new 'Gov Cloud' services targeted at government agencies

The City of Los Angeles isn't giving up on a proposed plan that would replace its Microsoft Office applications and Novell GroupWise e-mail system with the hosted Google Apps services, according to a report released last week by Miguel Santana, the city's administrative officer. He said that city officials are plowing ahead with an analysis of every aspect of a project that could turn Los Angeles into Google's marquee cloud users or a scarecrow.

Among the criteria being evaluated to justify a move to the hosted systems include potential savings in terms of storage, and whether it improves disaster recovery capabilities and worker productivity, Santana said in the report evaluating the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency (ITA)'s request to implement Google Apps.

According to the report, the base cost of switching to Google would be some $24.5 million over the five-year term of the proposed contract, $1.5 million more than the projected base cost of keeping its installed systems intact. But those projected costs don't evaluate the new capabilities of the hosted offerings and how it can cut costs in other areas, which is why Los Angeles officials are pressing ahead with the analysis.

The report noted that Google last month unveiled a new version of Google Apps that answers some of the questions posed by critics of the plan.

For example, Google had initially offered to improve the encryption capabilities of the service to satisfy concerns voiced by the city's police department. "Since that time," wrote Santana, "Google has introduced a new offering referred to as the 'Gov Cloud,' through which sensitive government data would be stored in dedicated facilities within the continental United Sates and be managed by individuals who would be subject to high level security clearances. The Police Department is satisfied that these measures will adequately address its security concerns."

Google's government cloud product, created specifically for state and federal agencies, is made up of services hosted in facilities that meet the U.S. Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) certification. The service is expected to be available next year.

Meanwhile, the ITA now wants to implement Google Apps next June, some six months later than its initial plan, according to the report. It's uncertain whether the schedule change is related to the release schedule fot the new Google service.

In making the case for this move, Los Angeles officials are continuing to analyze the full impact of hosted services on the city's IT capabilities, the report said. The city expects that moving to a cloud-based service will allow Los Angeles to reassign nine of 13 staff, and use the sixty servers now supporting GroupWise for other functions. The switch to Google Apps will also provide Los Angeles with more storage capacity and disaster recovery capabilities, particularly for its e-mail system, officials estimate.

The hosted Google offering can also provide the city with video conferencing capabilities if the city purchases cameras. If LA were to add this capability without Google, it would cost nearly $4 million more over five years, the report said.

Sheri McLeish, an information and knowledge management analyst at Forrester Research Inc., agreed that such benefits are likely, but the city's projected savings may be very optimistic. "They are acknowledging the benefits, but there's nothing to indicate that they ever would have paid for" some of them in the coming years.

According to the report, the ITA believes Google Apps use would result in an "average productivity gain per City employee [of] 10 minutes per week," a projection that almost almost sounds like something out of Ripley's Believe it or Not. The ITA paticularly cited Google's collaboration tools and service availability, which would "likely to be superior to our current system." Based on an average annual salary of $71,200 for city employees, the agency esitmated the value of uptime and collaboration gains from Google Apps at $44.5 million over five years.

That calculation was met with skepticism from Santana and analysts. "While increased productivity is a benefit to the city, 10 minutes per week per employee would not lead to hard dollar budgetary savings. It is not possible to accurately predict the magnitude of productivity changes."

Added McLeish: Productivity "never really doesn't translate into hard dollars."

Rob Enderle, an independent analysts in San Jose, Calif., said he sees pitfalls ahead for IT managers if the city goes ahead with the Google Apps plan. "Email migrations are career killers as there is no upside for the implementation team. Yet," he added, "with obsolete products like GroupWise someone has to do them."

"Being one of the first, while exciting, is generally seen as incredibly foolish in hindsight because, if it works flawlessly you don't get any real credit and if it breaks, and it almost always breaks badly, folks come hunting for your head and without other successful implementations to point to, you tend to look foolhardy," Enderle said.

A move to the cloud would put LA on the cutting edge of technology, a place where few agencies are comfortable. "I would expect this trial to fail but I would also expect we will learn a lot from it," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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