The agency will create a menu of providers from which other agencies can purchase email services.
The General Services Administration on Wednesday began soliciting bids from companies interested in hosting government email systems in the cloud.
GSA will evaluate bids from all interested companies and list those that pass muster on a menu from which agencies can select the vendor that best meets an agency's needs, a GSA spokeswoman told Nextgov.
The spokeswoman said she couldn't speculate on likely rates the companies will charge because that might influence the bids themselves. She was uncertain as to when GSA would release the list of approved cloud email service providers.
The Obama administration's 25-point plan to reform federal IT management, published in December 2010, requires agencies to identify three services they will move to cloud computing by June 2012.
The administration's Federal Cloud Computing Strategy, published in February, estimates about one-third of the government's $80 billion in annual IT spending is ripe for a move to the cloud. Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra has said moving data and programs to the cloud could save taxpayers millions of dollars annually and improve performance.
In a statement Wednesday, Kundra called the GSA bid request a "critical" part of the administration's IT agenda, which will help "end the waste and deliver better service for less."
GSA's goal is to increase the government's leverage over companies and drive down bids by putting multiple agencies up for grabs, GSA said.
Email systems are widely considered low-hanging fruit for moving computing operations to the cloud and they are likely to be heavily featured on agencies' lists of programs slated for the move.
"GSA is providing government agencies with easy access to cost-saving, high-value [and] more efficient technology solutions by doing a major part of the procurement process upfront," GSA's Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Steve Kempf said in a statement.
The GSA spokeswoman said it's unlikely agencies such as the Interior Department and GSA itself, which have already begun moving part or all of their email systems to the cloud, will enter into a new contract based on the bids, but she said it's possible some of those contracts will allow the agencies to renegotiate.
The term cloud refers to publicly or privately owned banks of computer servers that third parties can rent to store or process data. Clients pay only for the space and services they use, which fluctuates depending on demand at any given time.
Cloud computing can free federal agencies from maintaining their own servers, but it also creates security concerns for federal IT managers who are hesitant to yield control over sensitive data.
Cloud computing also can save money for some agencies, especially those with irregular data use patterns, such as the Internal Revenue Service, which has a spike in server usage around tax time each year, Nigel Ballard, director of federal marketing for Intel, told Nextgov.
"You don't want a room full of idle racks of equipment," Ballard said. "[With cloud computing] you have the ability to say, 'Just give me what I need; I'll turn on the faucet as much as I want and when I'm done I'll just turn the faucet off again.' "
As companies compete to move government agencies to the cloud, their pitches will likely include voice components and other add-ons, said Nick Mehta, a member of an advisory group on the government's cloud transition sponsored by the industry group TechAmerica. Those features are common on cloud-based email systems like Google's gmail but aren't currently feasible with the kind of internally-managed email systems most government agencies run. Mehta is the CEO of LiveOffice, which runs an email and instant message archiving service in the cloud.