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Los Angeles City Council Approves Google E-Mail Plan

Microsoft and Google made final arguments in three-hour discussion.

The Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved Tuesday, Oct. 27, a plan to move the city's employees to Google's Gmail and productivity tools, a decision that could signal momentum for other government agencies that are considering adoption of cloud computing for enterprisewide IT services.

L.A. is thought to be the first public-sector enterprise to choose Google's e-mail service Gmail, which is accessed from a Web browser and is hosted by the company's massive network of offsite servers. L.A. will replace its existing e-mail system, Novell GroupWise, which it has used for the past seven years. The five-year contract with Google will cost L.A. $17.5 million.

The city estimates that moving its 30,000 employees to Gmail will save $5.5 million over five years, reduce the number of servers needed for e-mail from 90 to a few dozen, and cut nine positions from the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency.

Some city councilmembers -- and Google's competitors -- have questioned the reliability, security and cost-effectiveness of moving government data to the cloud. Los Angeles Chief Technology Officer Randi Levin told the Council on Tuesday that Google's data storage and tools are more secure and more technologically advanced than what the city currently has.

"[Gmail] is more than a way of the future; it's a way of the present," said Levin, in testimony to the City Council.

City councilman Tony Cardenas said the city's current e-mail system has been prone to crashes, which has hurt employees' productivity. In addition, Levin said the city lacks disaster recovery for its e-mail system -- a shortcoming that she said Gmail will address.

"If there is a major earthquake in this city, and there might be, it would take us a while to get the city's e-mail up and running today," Levin said.

City officials acknowledged that although Gmail isn't foolproof -- a few high-profile service interruptions have occurred recently -- L.A.'s employees have been forced to cope with outages on the current e-mail system that's located on-premise.

Last-Minute Lobbying

Over the past few months, representatives from Microsoft and Google descended upon L.A. City Hall to lobby on the plan. Observers have speculated that in Microsoft's case, the software giant wanted to quash the Google contract in order to bulwark against the prospect of Google scoring more large customers in the public sector and corporations.

The lobbying carried over into the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting. Several Google executives lauded the merits of its plan, while executives from competitors made last-ditch pitches. A Microsoft rep said the company's e-mail could be had for half the price of Gmail, while Novell offered to upgrade the city to GroupWise 8 for minimal cost.

Retired L.A. County CIO Jon Fullinwider told the Council that its decision on Gmail would be watched closely by municipalities across the country that many be interested in similar cloud-based solutions. He said switching to Gmail was not a leap of faith from a technology perspective. "This is the right solution at the right time," he said.

L.A. City Council Debates

Before the Council approved the plan, several members peppered Levin with questions and comments. Discussion dragged along for nearly three hours.

"It's unclear to me if we're on the cutting edge or if we're on the edge of a cliff and about to step off," said Councilman Paul Koretz. He claimed the city's cost estimates for the project were "a moving target" and that decision-makers hadn't adequately discussed how much better Gmail is than GroupWise from a user perspective.

Koretz later voted in favor of the plan, but only after he introduced an amendment approved

by the Council that asks the city to negotiate "liquidated liability" in case of a security breach.

Councilman Bernard Parks said he was troubled that the foundation of L.A.'s Gmail system -- a self-contained "government cloud" that Google says will mirror its widely used commercial offering -- hasn't yet been launched.

City Council President Eric Garcetti said that there was "no question" that the city should move into cloud computing, whether it be with Google, Novell, Microsoft or another company.

Public Safety Onboard

Levin has convinced the L.A. Fire and Police departments to back the plan, after some initial pushback. She said the U.S. Department of Justice approves of the technical specifications of the project -- a concern for law enforcement agencies that deliver potentially sensitive and confidential information to the DOJ.

Levin said Google offers security expertise that the city can't match. The L.A. Information Technology Agency has lost three system administrators in the past few weeks who have expertise with GroupWise, Levin said, adding that it would be increasingly difficult to find enough in-house expertise to sustain the current system going forward.

Google says it's in the process of earning Federal Information Security Management Act certification for Gmail and its other services.