By Brian Heaton, Government Technology writer
Chalk up Minnesota as another state government that has shifted its email to the cloud.
The state’s Office of Enterprise Technology (OET) moved almost 40,000 workers in more than 70 agencies to Microsoft Office 365 for email services and collaborative tools. The change follows a prior migration of state email accounts to Microsoft Exchange as a part of an enterprisewide service agreement the North Star State signed with Microsoft in 2010.
According to Microsoft’s official announcement on Tuesday, March 20, Minnesota is the first state to fully deploy Office 365, the company’s email product stored in a cloud. More than 1,000 state and local government agencies are using the platform in some capacity, according to Microsoft. The cloud has been a popular destination for government email and applications the last few years, with Colorado, Wyoming, Maryland and Utah signing-on with Google’s cloud-based Apps for Government.
Tarek Tomes, assistant commissioner of the OET, said that in addition to the cost savings and storage capacity benefits the cloud provides, the jump to Microsoft’s cloud allows Minnesota agencies to concentrate on finding solutions to business problems instead of trying to provide a communications platform.
“The biggest piece for us is how enabling it is for us to have an ecosystem where we can innovate and not operate,” Tomes said. “We can now provide all of Minnesota’s public sector with a modern platform that has modernization aspects embedded within it that doesn’t require huge capital expenditures on a periodic basis.”
Minnesota’s email and overall platform cloud migration took about two months, starting last October and finishing in late November. Tomes recalled that, prior to making the move, the OET and state agencies spent a lot of time detailing the steps that would be necessary to make the transition as seamless as possible.
The state decided to roll out the cloud in blocks of days that IT staff called “migration windows” and did it on a per-agency basis. This approach kept users who have similar communication and collaboration needs together. The plan succeeded. Tomes said once the project was done, only five or six of the almost 40,000 users needed any further assistance. For the rest, it was like nothing happened at all.
“Many of our users migrated without realizing their content was [moved],” Tomes said. “They started their email client the next day like they do every day and it connected to the back end. There was a lot of work to get the environment prepared to do that, but the actual migration was extremely seamless.”
In addition to email, tools in the Office 365 suite such as SharePoint Online are being used by state employees, allowing for more convenient file management and workflow. Tomes added that some of the platform’s other features, such as instant messaging and mobile communication should see more widespread use as Minnesota agencies get more comfortable on the system.
The ability of cloud technology to support the higher grade of security needed by law enforcement has been a heated topic in the past few months. Los Angeles partially backed out of a deal with Google to host its email services on Google Apps for Government, and opinion continues to be divided on whether the cloud is the proper place for sensitive information.
Minnesota shared some of those security concerns, undertaking a security risk assessment of Office 365 before agreeing to the move. Tomes explained that state officials made physical visits to Microsoft’s data center to gain a better understanding of how the company’s cloud services are delivered.
The OET took that assessment, correlated it with the state’s regulatory and security requirements and found “a few gaps” in the system. All the concerns were addressed and fixed by Microsoft, but one of the notable ones was Office 365’s standard operating process behind the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Sharing requirements.
The system was tweaked to accommodate the security operating process Minnesota requires, which Tomes said is a very common type used in public safety. He added that the operating process is now standard in Office 365.
Minnesota has been recruiting customers to use its shared enterprise email system since last year. St. Paul, Minn., signed a shared service agreement with Minnesota last August. While the project is still “two to four months” from being complete, Tomes felt Office 365 should accelerate its completion. In addition, he said the new platform should also help improve the state’s ability to attract other local governments to use their services.
By embracing cloud technology, Minnesota has moved to a system where they can renew systems, hardware and add capacity without making any capital expenditures. With that flexibility in place, the state can bring aboard additional users to their email platform on a per-user subscription basis.
“From a state perspective, we can now tie different organizations together to solve collaborative things they have in common, but we’re also able to collaborate more broadly with counties and cities,” Tomes said. “We’ve broken down the hurdles of IT to get to business value much quicker.”