VA considers moving email, office software to the cloud

A separate project will test Microsoft Office alternatives.

The Veterans Affairs Department plans to test email and other office software in a cloud computing environment and to try out potentially lower cost alternatives to Microsoft Office products -- such as Google Apps -- in two pilot projects set to kick off this year.

VA announced both projects in notices to industry posted Friday to the FedBizOpps website. The department asked vendors to detail their approaches in white papers submitted by March 15.

The Cloud-Based Office Automation and Collaboration Pilot will include off-premises hosting of email, word processing, presentation, database and spreadsheet software.

VA currently provides Microsoft Office to 300,000 employees through software installed on hard drives of desktop or laptop computers.

The department said it wants to test cloud versions of collaboration tools, including real-time instant messaging, endpoint-to-endpoint audio, screen sharing, and collaborative writing and document editing. This project includes user-controlled Web portals and information-sharing websites and Web-based applications similar to Microsoft SharePoint. It will run for a six-to-12 month period starting this year.

If VA decides to move email into the cloud after the pilot, it would be the largest federal agency to do so after the Army, which is in the midst of shifting 634,000 users to a cloud provided by the Defense Information Systems Agency. The Interior Department reissued a solicitation earlier this month for cloud email services after a yearlong legal battle with Google, which contested the original award to a Microsoft partner.

Vendors' cloud computing environments must adhere to the Federal Information Security Management Act's "high" or "moderate" standards with mitigating controls that meet its requirements, VA said. Data transmitted to users must adhere to Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 for encryption.

VA plans to use the Office Productivity Suite Alternatives Pilot to examine lower cost alternatives to desktop versions of Microsoft Office. These include Microsoft's cloud version, Office 365, Google Apps and IBM's LotusLive, the cloud version of Lotus email and collaboration software. The department also would consider a lower cost office productivity suite such as OpenOffice, spun off by Oracle last year to the Apache Software Foundation.

The purpose of both pilots is to help it understand issues such as security, supportability, interoperability, ease of use, end-user satisfaction, speed, network requirements and compatibility with Microsoft-based products for a diverse set of users within a large enterprise setting, VA said.

Google declined to comment on the the department's pilots. Microsoft, which currently has a lock on VA desktop software, took a positive approach to both pilots.

"Microsoft wholeheartedly supports the [VA's] moves to reduce on-premise software costs and consider options around cloud computing," Susie Adams, the company's chief technology officer, said in a statement.

"We think our approach provides the VA with the broadest range of choice as it thinks about migrating to the cloud -- whether it's accessing browser-based Office applications on the devices they choose, or an incremental move to Office 365 through a dedicated government cloud, a private cloud, or a blend of on-premise and cloud offerings," she said. "No one in the marketplace today offers this kind of flexibility and choice."

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