Cloud Computing's E-Mail Showdown

Arizona pits the public sector against the private sector in a cloud e-mail face-off.
July 2010
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

By the time you read this, Arizona hopes to be pitting Microsoft against Google in something of an e-mail consolidation showdown.

State CIO Chad Kirkpatrick planned to launch an experiment in June where one group of state employees will use Google's Internet-based Gmail service and another would use Microsoft's Exchange Server product delivered through the state government's private computer network. "We're going to separate the hype from the reality, and see what works best both from a practical standpoint and a cost standpoint," Kirkpatrick says.

While there's broad agreement that individual government agencies should get out of the e-mail hosting business, there are varying opinions on the right way to do it. More so than pitting the IT industry's biggest rivals against one another, Arizona's experiment will evaluate two competing e-mail consolidation strategies: the "public cloud" and "private cloud" models.

The public cloud approach outsources government e-mail systems to private companies like Google, which host the systems and deliver e-mail service to agencies via the Internet. Los Angeles became the public cloud poster child in 2009 when the City Council unanimously approved a five-year deal with Google to use the company's Internet-based e-mail and productivity tools. The city is thought to be the largest government entity to move its entire e-mail system--used by 30,000 municipal employees--to Google's Gmail service.

And Colorado recently unveiled its twist on the public cloud model by inking a contract in April to deliver Google's Gmail and other hosted applications to state and local agencies through its Statewide Internet Portal Authority, a quasi-government organization created to run the state's website.

With the private cloud model, states or localities run their own central e-mail systems and deliver services to agencies via a private government network. Utah and Michigan--both of which have invested heavily in statewide IT consolidation--are moving in this direction. They're developing the capacity to host e-mail and other computer applications in centralized state government data centers and pipe those services out to state and local agencies through a secure "government cloud."

Arizona plans to sample both flavors of e-mail consolidation before deciding which way to go. The e-mail experiment will run for six weeks, and then the state will spend about a month analyzing the results. Those findings will shape Arizona's statewide e-mail strategy, Kirkpatrick says. Along the same lines, the University of Arizona compared Gmail and Microsoft in late May, ultimately choosing Microsoft as the winner after an exhaustive study.

Whichever model the state ultimately chooses, something needs to change. "We have about 135 state agencies, boards and commissions, all of them running their own e-mail systems," Kirkpatrick says. "So you have a lot of redundancies--whether it's the people managing the systems or the purchasing of the physical equipment. There's a lot of savings opportunity there."

It probably goes without saying that those savings are more important than ever. Although Kirkpatrick describes Arizona's current revenue situation as "less bad," the state still struggles with the large gap between income and spending. As states and localities nationwide confront the reality of long-term reductions in spending growth, getting individual agencies and departments out of the e-mail business offers one avenue for reducing the cost of running government.

"The goal is that by the beginning of next calendar year, we'll actually be on the path to some sort of consolidation," Kirkpatrick says, "but we will have done our homework."