NOAA moves to cloud-based email

This story has been updated.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has completed its transition to a cloud-based Google email system and things are running smoothly, NOAA Chief Information Officer Joseph Klimavicz said Wednesday.

At 25,000 employees, NOAA is the largest agency to move its entire email system to the cloud so far, according to a Google blog entry also posted Wednesday.

The weather-tracking agency began accepting bids on its transition in January 2011 and awarded the $11.5 million, three-year transition contract to Earth Resources Technologies in June. NOAA moved about 2,000 employees to Google email in three early migration phases and transferred its remaining 23,000 employees over the weekend of Dec. 10-11, Klimavicz told Nextgov.

Those early migration phases helped the agency fine tune its training for the full move, Klimavicz said. The contractor also had employees stationed in NOAA facilities in the first few days after the final migration to answer basic questions about using the system, which cut down on employee help desk calls.

The agency only received about 130 help desk tickets in the days after the transition, he said, a low figure for such a major system change.

"I've really never been involved in a transition in government of this magnitude that's gone this smoothly," Klimavicz said.

Cloud-based Google Apps for Government is essentially a more secure and managed version of Google's Gmail suite. It can include services such as collaborative document editing through Google Docs, shared calendar functions and the ability to create small-scale internal websites through Google sites.

Because the system is based in the cloud, employees also can access those services from any computer, smartphone or tablet that's connected to the Web.

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.

Many employee questions had to do with operating the system's calendar function, Klimavicz said. That confusion wasn't unexpected. First, because employees' work calendars are so deeply integrated, NOAA had to move all employee calendars at once rather than learn from a phased migration.

"The calendar was sort of all or nothing," Klimavicz said, "so we were learning cold turkey on Dec. 12."

Many employees also were already familiar with the Google Apps for Government's email interface because they had personal Gmail accounts or used another Web-based email system, such as Yahoo, with a similar interface, he said. Fewer people use those systems' calendar functions.

NOAA plans to eventually turn on all the Google system's features, such as Google Docs and Google sites, but is holding off on most of them to not overload employees.

"We want to figure out policies and procedures so we can effectively manage [those tools]," he said. "Those capabilities are robust, but until we figure out a scheme to process and manage all of them effectively, they could make things more difficult to manage rather than easier."

This is one of five ongoing moves to the cloud by NOAA's parent agency, the Commerce Department, according to a list published by the Office of Management and Budget.

OMB has directed all agencies to move at least three services to the cloud by May and expects to save $5 billion annually by transferring roughly one-fourth of the government's computing to the cloud by 2015.

Email systems are a popular choice for agencies to shift to the cloud because of the relative ease of transition and because of the new flexibility cloud-based email offers employees.

The General Services Administration was the first agency to complete its transition to cloud-based email in June. The new system is working smoothly so far, according to the agency's chief information officer.