Pittsburgh’s roots may be firmly planted in the industrial era, but the Steel City’s technology future is headed up to the cloud.

The city is switching its e-mail system from Microsoft Exchange 2003 to Google Apps for Government. Officials believe the move — which should be complete by Thanksgiving — will improve services and save Pittsburgh approximately 25 percent in annual e-mail support costs.

Dr. Howard A. Stern, CIO of Pittsburgh, said that while the financial savings will be nice, the shift to cloud-based e-mail is more about increasing electronic storage capacity for the city’s 3,000 employees and furthering Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s efforts to modernize city government.

Stern explained that by going to the cloud, employees will each have 25 GB of e-mail storage, which is approximately 500 times more capacity than what workers have currently. He said moving to the cloud is a necessity because the city simply doesn’t have the personnel and resources to maintain Pittsburgh’s aging e-mail exchange server.

“Our options were to stay the way we are and upgrade the equipment and try to recruit people and pay more money, or we could go out to the cloud,” Stern said, adding that it was still a tough decision because Microsoft had served the city well.

The Pittsburgh CIO also believes that if the city gets a reputation of being at the cutting edge of technology through its cloud technologies, it might also help bolster employee recruitment efforts.

E-discovery is another area Stern felt would be streamlined by moving to a hosted e-mail solution. He said that the ability to store, retrieve and search documents, e-mails and other communications was a “non-negotiable issue” when considering cloud providers.

Stern said with Google Apps for Government, the technology frees him and his staff up from much of the responsibility regarding the totality of document searches.

“My folks spend an incredible amount of time getting this data,” Stern explained, regarding e-discovery. “We have tools that can search the e-mails, but its still a huge undertaking and labor intensive. And quite frankly, it’s something I want to get out of the business of. I’d rather have a product out there that gives the ability to search to our lawyers and keep me out of it.”

Security Concerns

Stern was adamant that data security was a “huge issue” for Pittsburgh, and he said a lot of the information the city has is public safety-related and can’t be exposed. As a result, Stern said the best option for the city was going to an arrangement where Pittsburgh’s information is stored on servers solely dedicated to government customers.

When asked about the blog exchange in April between Google and Microsoft regarding whether Google Apps for Government is certified under the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), Stern maintained that Pittsburgh is satisfied that Google’s cloud-base service delivers as advertised.

Stern said that his department has an attorney that specializes in technology issues that spends a lot of time working on FISMA issues, and between that research and examples of other local, state, and federal government agencies using Google Apps for Government, Pittsburgh stands behind Google “100 percent.”

But just in case, Stern added Pittsburgh’s security interests are covered from a legal perspective.

“There is terminology in our [contract] language that guarantees it,” Stern said regarding FISMA compliance for Google Apps for Government. “If there is a problem, [Google] will be held accountable for it.”

Implementation and Future Plans

Stern revealed the contract between Pittsburgh and Google should be signed by mid-August. After that, Daston Corp. will work with the city to implement Google Apps for Government. The implementation process should take 60 to 90 days. Stern expected the one-time cost to get the cloud started would be about $200,000, and the city would have to purchase annual mailboxes for users from Google.

Once implementation is complete Stern anticipated rolling out the cloud-based e-mail system to city employees at rate of roughly 1,000 persons per week.

“We want to do the implementation rather quickly,” Stern admitted. “I don’t want to drag it out because what it means is I’ll be maintaining an e-mail Exchange system as well as the Gmail system and I don’t want to maintain both of them.”

Stern added that if all goes well, the city will consider putting file servers and Web servers in the cloud as well. He said that about 40 percent of Pittsburgh city employees already have personal Gmail accounts, so the transition likely wouldn’t be as jarring as one might expect when overhauling a system as widely used as e-mail.

“They are accustomed to the look and feel of it, so I don’t think it will be as big of a sea change as we think,” Stern said. “It’ll be a smooth implementation.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.