Q&A: Orlando CIO Conrad Cross Sees Big Savings in Cloud E-Mail

CIO Conrad Cross is interested in cloud computing for other functions for Orlando, Fla.'s city government.

by / April 30, 2010 0

Much fanfare and anticipation has accompanied the city of Los Angeles' decision to migrate its 30,000-plus city employees to Google Apps, the Web-based productivity suite that includes Gmail. The project is scheduled for a full rollout this summer.

For a sneak peek at what the end result might be, one can look to Orlando, Fla., where city CIO Conrad Cross got approval from the City Council to move the city's 3,000 mailboxes to Gmail -- a migration completed in February.

Because of the implementation, Orlando has realized a 60 percent savings on e-mail, reducing its annual per-user cost from $113 for Lotus Notes to $50 with Gmail, according to Cross.

In the following Q&A with Government Technology, Cross said that even though cost savings was a driver for the move -- like many municipalities, Orlando has slashed its IT budget -- the emergence of cloud computing has forced the city to rethink all its service delivery: "Even if money was no object, I think I would have to evaluate -- is cloud computing not the best way to go?"

What were the business drivers for choosing the cloud for Orlando's e-mail?

Staff cuts and because our Lotus Notes platform was getting old -- 10 years old in one case, and they needed to be changed.

People were still complaining that they needed more storage, and we found that as the years went by, with all these digital cameras and multimedia work, that the attachments were getting larger and the amount of storage was increasing. We gave our users 100 MB [on the old system] and depending on their ranking or title, sometimes we would give them up to 500 MB. Still not a lot.

Time was really of the essence for us, especially so because we didn't have any administration on the Lotus Notes in-house, and I wasn't that comfortable with a contractor situation. Not that they can't do it, but we were thinking the sooner we move to a situation where somebody was in total control, the better off we would be.


Was it becoming problematic to find qualified support staff for the Lotus Notes platform?

Yeah, that was part of it. We brought in our Lotus Notes administrator, and it was one person when we started off, then we added another person to back him up -- that person came in and he was maybe in his 50s. When he retired last year, he was in his 60s. We paid him at a premium because Lotus administrators weren't very easy to find. When he left the city last year, he was making good money. And the person who backs him up -- the second person who used to administer software -- also decided to leave because we were going to have to make [staff] cuts, and he was one of the junior employees. He figured he would be one of the first to go, so he left also.

That kind of put us in a bind, and we were running Lotus Notes without that administration for a period of time. We did have somebody on contract, but that wasn't the ideal scenario for us. And the licenses were [set to expire].

How did you achieve buy-in from the city's leadership?

There was a lot of convincing to do, but our organization may be one-tenth the size of Los Angeles, and the politics of our organization was much less than L.A.'s situation. We had concerns from the different quarters, but one thing we did early on when we decided that Google may be an alternative for us is that we got some user test accounts set up and we brought in key users from across the city -- from

the police department, fire department, technology areas, my employees, some administrators, etc. -- because we knew that they were the core people.

So we had a test group initially. I think we had 20 accounts and then when we decided we were looking into it a little more we used my entire staff, which is about 60 people, for the test. After that was done, we went back to the individuals who participated -- they were representative of the entire city, especially the public safety, police and fire -- and asked them if this was a product that would meet their needs in terms of providing e-mail services.

They admitted that it wasn't quite like Lotus Notes, but of course it had similar functionalities, and they could get used to the interface. Therefore, they didn't see a problem with it.

I report to the chief financial officer, and we made a case based on the cost. They saw where we would have significant savings. And then we took it to City Council. There were several questions from the commissioners. One of the commissioners was concerned about what we were paying now and what would we be paying for Google Apps, and we showed them the numbers. And then one other commissioner wanted to know compatibility with smartphones, and we told her this was seemingly more compatible than what we had before.

Were there any unforeseen challenges during the migration from Lotus Notes to Gmail?

The full rollout happened Jan. 7, and we would've been finished within a week of starting but it was too close to the holidays for the police department. We had 2,000 people moved on Jan. 7 to 10, and we delayed the police for a month after that -- so the first week of February another 1,000 were brought on.

It was everything from setting up the domain names to setting up the security considerations, looking at mail that was being brought over from the old Lotus Notes mailboxes to the new Google accounts, making sure they were encrypted and couldn't be decrypted.

There was a whole sequence of events that went on in preparation for this. We migrated the bulk of each person's mailbox during the last weekend in 2009, so we moved everything over that was in the mailboxes, and then between Jan. 1 and Jan. 7, we moved the incremental stuff that came over between the last migration. So when we went on Jan. 7, it was migrating over 2,000 mailboxes. But they weren't fully stocked.

We ran into a problem because when we were doing the migration prior to Jan. 7, it wasn't a big deal because we had all the time in the world to do this, and we did it on evenings and weekends. It was a process that was going on for a while. But in trying to move the "incremental" mailboxes over in one night, at 7 a.m. the next morning -- for 12 hours we moved as many accounts as we could, but we still hadn't moved 400 mailboxes over -- people were starting to come to work. We had to put those people on hold and migrate those 400 the following night -- they came to work thinking they would be switched over. The beauty of it though was they still could get to their old Lotus Notes mailbox; that wasn't shut off yet. So they didn't lose any time working that day.

You believe this e-mail migration has been successful. Has that positive outcome motivated you to consider cloud-based offerings for other applications?

I have been giving this major thought ever since we moved to the cloud, and there are several reasons why.

A few weeks ago, one of my managers came to me proposing we spend for more storage and a backup technology of

some kind. It dawned on me that I needed to find out what the alternative was before making that decision because we had just upgraded storage on other systems and we have a large, diverse shop. [In the past] I was thinking the solution was to buy more hardware for storage. So I said to my manager, "What does the cloud look like as far as storage? Why don't you call the vendors out there who are promising they can back up our systems in the cloud and find out if there's a real solution there." He went down that road and he's aggressively trying to figure out if there's a better a way to store data than what we're doing now.

So instead of spending $300,000, would we be better served finding a storage provider in the cloud and pushing our stuff out? We haven't decided if we're going to go that route because it's still early, but that's the kind of mentality we're in right now as far what applications stay in-house and what applications go into the cloud. Since we've had such a successful experience moving our e-mail into the cloud, we're always looking for that next app we can move there.

I remember what it was like, because I've been here long enough. [Editor's Note -- Cross has worked for Orlando for 23 years and served as CIO since 1999.] I remember when we migrated to Lotus Notes. It' funny -- when we actually decided to go with Google and it was approved by [City] Council -- I had decided to clean out my desk drawer. I happened to come across some yellow sticky notes, and it was the way we'd voted 10 years previously when deciding between Exchange and Lotus Notes. They had the names of people involved in the process who voted yes or no. I think "Notes" won by two votes. And here we are 10 years later, doing the same thing. It's déjà vu.

But in a perfect world, would you prefer you had all the city's data, storage and servers on-premise?

Even if we weren't in the budget situation we're in now, I think we're at a point in our computing history that I'm questioning whether the way we did IT traditionally -- that everything is in-house -- would still be the best way of doing it. The technology is changing on us so fast that it's hard to keep staff trained. There's so much happening out there in terms of technology that we just can't keep up anymore, and we're finding there are specialized companies that, because of scalability and other cost factors, can do it much more efficiently and less expensively than we can do it. Even if money was no object, I think I would have to evaluate -- is cloud computing not the best way to go? Or is it something I need to do just because I can do it myself?

It's a question that I'm sure other governments are also asking. Is it your sense that peers are in a wait-and-see mode?

Yes and no. I have been bombarded with calls from my peers and private-sector companies about the move. I have a notebook on my desk, and when I get a call, I write the person's municipality or government agency. When I talk to each of these people, the question I get most is, "Did you really realize the savings that we saw?" and "How did you do it?" Everybody wants to know how, if they had the opportunity, how they should go about doing it themselves. They're calling me, hoping I can give them that magic bullet -- this is how you convince your [government] this is how it should be done.

They want to do something other than what they're doing now, but they're not quite sure how to do it. My counsel to them is look at the numbers, and if the numbers say it makes sense and your security concerns are such that you can put it into the cloud, then do it.

A lot of governments express concern about security in the cloud. And Los Angeles CIO Randi Levin took some heat after the city picked Google. You met with her recently. What did you talk about?

I think she had a lot of people beating up on her about security. My analogy to her was, "Look, what I do is I support government, and I don't advocate in my role when I say I need to give security to somebody else -- but a company like Google should provide way better security than my two security staffers could."

It's like a robber going into a bank with a sack over his back and he's going to bust into the vault and he sees gold coins, gold bars and all these different currencies and valuables -- and then there's the city of Orlando's information (which I equate to coins), and he robs the bank and takes the coins and decides to leave all those big valuable items.

That's a simplification of the analogy, but in the scheme of things we're in the sunshine, so you can get our information if you wanted by coming and asking us for it in most cases. Granted, there are things that are time-stamped and shouldn't be let out prematurely. But when we have Google that does this for a living, and the company has a team with a lot more expertise than what we have, then I have no reservations about going to them and saying, "OK, you manage or secure my stuff." So security was one of those things that I think Randi and I touched on a little bit.

So within the context of Google Apps, how do you handle sensitive data?

To the extent that [city employees] send information, it should be ultra-secure. What we've said to them in the past, even before we went this route with Google -- when we were with Lotus Notes -- was that if it's something ultra-confidential and doesn't need to be sent by the medium that we send it, then you find some other way of doing it. In other words, don't send it by e-mail, even in encryption, if this is something that could go another way.

In some cases, initially it may need to be paper-based or it may be something that you put in an envelope, stamp and put a seal on it and say, "Let's send it through the traditional mail." We had those discussions with the police department.

 

Matt Williams Associate Editor