GSA cloud email running smoothly at half-year mark

This story has been updated.

Six months after starting the mammoth task of moving the 17,000-employee General Services Administration to a cloud-based email system, Chief Information Officer Casey Coleman's strongest takeaway is about pacing.

The government management agency's phased migration to the new Google Apps for Government email system -- initially 100 information technology workers then 400 staffers agencywide and finally everyone else -- was crucial to refining GSA's training process, Coleman said.

During the second stage, IT staffers were able to hone their training for employees with specific needs, Coleman said, such as attorneys who have to retain certain emails and ensure they are easily searchable, and administrative assistants who manage their bosses' email accounts.

Those first two migrations, however, convinced Coleman's staff that separating the move into more than three phases would do more harm than good, especially if large numbers of GSA employees had to spend weeks sorting through two email systems and different sets of passwords and preferences.

GSA was the first federal agency to move its entire staff to a single cloud-based email system in June 2011. The agency awarded a contract in December 2010 and began the first stage of its migration in April.

The agency used its transition experience to inform a blanket purchase agreement that will smooth the way for other federal agencies making the move to cloud-based email. That request for quotation was reissued in November after government auditors tossed an earlier solicitation.

Coleman also has spoken about the transition with IT leaders from at least 20 other agencies in the six months since the system was deployed, she said.

GSA is on track to meet its goal of saving about $15 million from the email transition over five years, the CIO added.

Computer clouds are essentially large off-site banks of servers that store an organization's data and programs compactly and make them available via the Web on any Internet-connected device.

The Office of Management and Budget has directed all agencies to move three services to the cloud by May and expects to save $5 billion annually by transitioning roughly one-fourth of the government's computing to the cloud by 2015. OMB published a list in May of three services each agency plans to move to the cloud by mid-2012.

GSA already has begun deploying its two other systems, Coleman said. One of those systems oversees and secures agency-issued smartphones and other mobile devices; it also manages laptop power settings to help reduce the agency's carbon footprint. The other tracks correspondence between GSA and Congress.

The OMB cloud transition list is dotted with email systems, which are popular among federal agencies because of the relative ease of transition and because of the new flexibility cloud-based email offers employees.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it had successfully moved its 25,000-member agency to Google email Wednesday, making it the largest agency to host its email in the cloud.

While Coleman is careful to point out that every agency treats its email system differently, she has a list of lessons GSA learned that might help other agencies.

First, Coleman said, she's glad GSA used a browser-based version of Google Apps for Government rather than a version that's still based in the cloud but which users enter through software on their computers' hard drive. This allows the agency to turn on updates to the system as soon as they're available rather than waiting for fresh software.

Coleman also is glad GSA kept its authentication system for new users in-house rather than turning it over to Google, she said.

Perhaps the most important lesson, the CIO said, is recognizing the supreme importance of advance training. GSA required training on the new system and launched an internal advertising campaign in which high-ranking agency officials urged employees to commit to going to sessions and to "bring a buddy," Coleman said.

Despite those efforts, some employees still sloughed off the training, she said. In the weeks following the cloud email deployment, those no-shows accounted for 80 percent of all email-specific help desk calls, according to a survey.

"That told us the training was effective and people should have heeded the request," Coleman said.

Email help desk requests spiked in the first week after the transition but calmed down during the second week, Coleman said. Request numbers were back to normal by the third week and, soon after that, email-specific requests dropped below where they'd been before the migration.

Another good choice GSA made was to presume every Google capability would be useful, rather than to use a more conservative opt-in model, Coleman said.

"We've tried to turn on every capability of Google Apps for Government and we feel like that's been a boon to employees," she said. "There's very little we haven't turned on."

Google Apps for Government includes more secure versions of most of the standard tools connected with Web-based Gmail, such as Google Docs, Google Sites and Google Reader.

During the six months since the GSA email transition, many employees have begun collaborating on documents using Google Docs, the search giant's Web-based word processing tool, rather than emailing Word documents back-and-forth, Coleman said. Google Docs allows multiple collaborators to work on a single document at the same time.

Some employees also have begun storing their own documents as Google Docs so they can access them when they're away from their government computers, she said. Some GSA divisions also have started using Google Sites, a simplified website building program, to store important information such as contact lists or information on a particular project, she said.

"Most of those capabilities were around in some way [before the transition], but not in a unified platform so they were less popular," Coleman said. "They were in different places with different user IDs and passwords and different interfaces."