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National Archives Goes Google

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration put its email and records management services in the cloud.

Following the lead of other public-sector agencies, the protector of the United States government’s most important documents has turned to the cloud for email services and records storage.

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) successfully moved its 5,300 email accounts to Google Apps for Government. The system went live on April 22 and includes a series of tools to help NARA employees better communicate and collaborate with their peers.

According to Brian Connor, an IT specialist with NARA, the chief reason the Administration moved to the cloud was for better uptime and reliability. About a year and a half ago, NARA was hit with a couple of critical email server failures that led to a lot of data loss, which spurred the discussion about moving to the cloud.

“We’re feeling much more confident in our email services now than we were prior,” Connor said. “By going to the cloud, we’ve made it so that it’s accessible for our work at home folks, and people can access things remotely from any device.”

In addition, the new email system has enabled NARA employees to access and use Google Drive, a storage feature that's been useful for collaborating on documents and projects. Connor added that users are also fond of the chat function to communicate with one another on the fly.

One thing that surprised NARA’s IT staff was that very few users elected to take the training on how to use the new email system — only “2 or 3 percent” of the user base attending any of the optional training sessions. But Connor said they’ve had almost no complaints or questions about using Gmail, other than an occasional, “How do I do this?” inquiry once or twice per week.

NARA partnered with Unisys on the project, rolling out Google Apps for Government in approximately five months. Steve Kousen, vice president of federal engineering and cloud computing services at Unisys, said in an email statement to Government Technology that they used a three-phase engagement for the NARA rollout.

The first step was a 100-user IT pilot. Then they moved to a 300-user early adoption phase and finally a global “go-live” cutover of all remaining users.

Connor didn’t have the exact project financials available, but said over the course of the four-year contract, Google Apps for Government should run the Administration about $9 million.

Initial Challenges

One of the major requirements NARA had for its new email system was security. Because NARA wanted users to be able to access their email remotely, Connor said the agency needed two-factor authentication. 

Unisys supplied an application that allows employees to authenticate the device they are using to login to the system using a PIN, and once verified, the person’s security credentials are checked against what’s stored in NARA’s internal identity management system.

The hiccup in the rollout was finding a way to accommodate a couple hundred users that previously shared email accounts.

In the new email environment, NARA employees don’t have that ability because of the authentication process and single sign-on. Instead, NARA has enabled Google Groups. But Connor called it “an imperfect solution,” since it doesn’t replicate the functionality of a shared mailbox.

While the email transition is complete, NARA’s new records management archive and e-discovery system is still a work in progress. Though the application is live and collecting information already, end users won’t have access to it until late June.

The project is taking a little longer to complete because NARA is migrating its old email system’s archive into the new records management system. Prior to the transition, only NARA executives had the ability to store and label items as records in a dedicated system. The new system will give that ability to all users.

Connor called the old system “convoluted,” and said that staff sat down early on with Unisys to discuss requirements and explain exactly what they needed.

“The end user doesn’t even have to interact with it,” he said. “We’re just using the labels that are within Gmail. The end user can label something as a record or not. A record schedule gets applied to it based on what those labels are.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.