Why GSA’s Move to the Cloud is One to Watch

Cloud Computing7 minutes readFeb 8th, 2011

My earlier post on the announcement that Unisys will migrate the General Services Administration to Google Apps for Government talked about why the announcement was getting so much attention. Today I want to explore some of the reasons why this announcement is an historic one.

I don’t use the word “historic” lightly. But GSA’s decision to take to the cloud is truly an historic step in the history of computing. While the announcement has been portrayed in the press as a battle between Google and Microsoft (and it is, to some extent), that angle misses the greater significance of what the GSA is doing, why they are doing it, and why they asked Unisys to help them do it.

Yes, the GSA is the first federal agency to move its e-mail and desktop environment to the cloud. Yes, GSA’s analysis predicts that its migration will cut related costs by 50 percent over the next five years. And yes, Google Apps for Government is the first suite of e-mail and cloud computing apps to receive FISMA certification, showing that the Google solution meets federal government security requirements.

All of that makes this announcement important, but not necessarily historic. What is historic is what this announcement represents: 17,000 federal employees changing how and where work gets done in a major government agency. The ripple effect is sure to be substantial, extending well beyond those 17,000 pioneers to the people and organizations they work and collaborate with, both inside and outside the federal government.

There are four dimensions to this ripple effect, which the GSA just accelerated dramatically by deciding to embrace the cloud:

1. Organizations are leveraging the fast-cycle innovation that is taking place in consumer-driven IT.

2. People are being unchained from their desktops and their desktop applications, through the power of mobile devices, mobile tools, and the cloud.

3. Collaboration, and the tools to support it, are stepping beyond the boundaries of the firewall.

4. Work has become more collaborative and more social and, as a result, teams are becoming more productive and effective.

Changes in Technology Drive Changes in Work Environment

Like most consumerized technology, Google Apps are shaped and reshaped through a continuous innovation cycle. Google rolls out these technologies with the consumer brand, available for free and, effectively, millions of people test the Apps out. Then Google rolls the proven technology into the education market. And then into Google Apps for Businesses.

Only after the technology has been hardened through all of those stages does it end up in Google Apps for Government. This is a consumer-driven fast innovation cycle that can now deliver tested, field-proven, secure applications for the government market.

The need to work anywhere, any place, at any time is another powerful piece of what GSA is doing. GSA is a customer-facing organization for procurement of $40 billion of goods and services in support of federal buildings. There are around 15,000 federal buildings to be supported. So the dynamic that the Administrator of GSA sees is one where people would work together whenever and wherever there is a need or opportunity.

Here is a forward-thinking organization that’s decided its people shouldn’t be tied down to a desk in a GSA office; rather, they should be out in the field where their customers are. This is, obviously, a completely different model from the traditional office-bound environment, and it’s not one that can be supported today by putting all tools IT has to offer inside the firewall.

The Big Benefit

The GSA’s interest in the cloud is not limited to e-mail. The agency is motivated by the improved productivity made possible by the Google Apps’ real-time collaboration model. And they’ll be working with us to develop new social computing capabilities that empower GSA workers across America to service customers more efficiently than ever before possible.

If you think about it, the command-and-control mindset of the government to limit access to and secure data is being challenged by this consumerization of government IT. The GSA has taken a leadership role in the federal sector by recognizing the trend and aggressively going after the benefits. This is a big change, and we’re proud to be part of the effort.

Giving people the flexibility to do their jobs anywhere with tools that encourage collaboration will lead to places we can’t necessarily predict. I think back to the efforts by FedEx and UPS to upgrade their systems in the early 90s. Ultimately, this upgrade wasn’t about improving the efficiency of their logistics, though it certainly did that. It was more about letting customers know where their packages were while they were en route. The basic ability to scan and track packages at all points was a game-changer for them.

In GSA’s world, the productivity and collaboration benefits are the obvious takeaways. But what’s really exciting about Google Apps for Government is its open API. That gives us the ability to integrate all sorts of other technologies and capabilities into the core application suite, using mashups, SOA, and other integration approaches.

Why Unisys?

Why did the GSA turn to Unisys to help them make this historic move? Why not go straight to Google?

When moving the GSA (or any organization) to Google Apps for Government, it’s important to note that the infrastructure and security (in this case, the GSA’s) are not transferred to Google. Google runs the Apps behind their firewall. The GSA’s Active Directory servers, where the names, roles, and rights of workers are managed, remain firewalled inside the GSA’s data center.

In the GSA’s case, there are also some 9,000 BlackBerry devices roaming outside of the firewall, along with a host of other applications and devices. None of that goes away. All of it has to be dealt with. In fact, it could be argued that we shouldn’t even use the word “migration” to describe this project. That’s because we are not migrating the GSA to the cloud as much as we are integrating the GSA with a software service in the cloud.

And a lot of the integration does not happen in the cloud. Simply put, it’s impossible to bring a major solution such as a Google Apps into an organization, and be successful, without having a deep, functional understanding of the organization. It’s essential to understand how to take legacy environments and optimize them to thrive in the new world order. And Google is not in the position or even in the business to handle that sort of intimate customer interface.

But we are. The GSA selected Unisys because we understand their current environment, their strategy, their priorities, their direction; and we have a track record of successful transitions for the GSA. Equally relevant, we share a common vision and belief with the GSA in the power of consumer-driven IT, and a passion to capitalize on this new wave of productivity.

The World Should Be Watching

I started this post by saying this is not just an important project for Unisys, but a historic one for the industry in general and the federal government in specific. The success or failure of this project will shape the use of cloud-based applications by the federal government going forward.

It’s not just about Google Apps or consumer-powered IT, although those are certainly central to making this possible. It’s about how the GSA is using consumerized technology to reshape the very nature of how federal employees work together. It’s about how a software service born of the consumer Web is demonstrating an ability to support the resiliency and security required by the federal government.

And it’s about how Unisys is bringing Google’s technology and the GSA’s infrastructure together to build a tightly integrated, secure, and capable system that will empower thousands of the GSA’s employees and customers for years to come.

And the most exciting part of all of this? It can be done in a fraction of the time, for a fraction of the cost, that it might once have taken to complete a project of this magnitude. We’ll see the GSA in the cloud this year.