CSC, Google join forces on LA cloud computing project

Los Angeles is about to get a cloud thanks to a joint venture between Computer Sciences Corp. and Google Inc., which are building a cloud e-mail system to replace the existing Novell GroupWise service for the city’s municipal agencies.

Los Angeles, known for sun and smog, is about to get a cloud thanks to a joint venture between Computer Sciences Corp. and Google Inc.

The companies are building a cloud e-mail system to replace the existing Novell GroupWise service for the city’s municipal agencies using Google's suite of Web-based productivity tools.

The old system was not easy to use and did not have cutting-edge features, such as being able to work on an iPhone. It also lacked a disaster recovery system, said Randi Levin, chief technology officer and general manager of the Los Angeles Information and Technology Agency.

The city’s financial condition was deteriorating, she said, and no money was available for an upgrade. “So you can’t put all this on Novell’s doorstep.”

“We believed that if we had gone to another traditionally in-house hosted environment, it was going to be a huge upfront cost," Levin said. "And we knew there was no way we were going to get that kind of funding in this economic climate.”

“To make the move from what you have to a new model typically costs a lot of money, especially if you just do the same kind of thing in-house but do it with bigger, faster, better computers,” said Mike Gaffney, president of CSC’s North American Public Sector Civil and Health Services Group.

“What L.A. came to realize is that they didn’t have to own all the computers and all the software in order to use it as long as it could be reliably delivered by a provider,” he said. “There are tremendous economies of scale if you use the cloud.”

Although the federal government’s interest in cloud computing is growing, cities and states are out in front of the technology because they are driven by the need to reduce costs and still maintain basic services, Gaffney said.

Security Concerns

When Los Angeles city officials issued a request for proposals a year and a half ago, the RFP drew the interest of ubiquitous Silicon Valley search engine Google.

“Our No. 1 criterion was obviously cost," Levin said. "But then we had a lot of others including security, function and features, etc.”

“Our group has been downsized significantly,” she added. “So part of this [implementation] for us is more of a survival tactic so we can use our resources in other places.”

"Google wanted a systems integrator to be the prime contractor because Google provides a service and was not prepared to play the systems integrator role,” Gaffney said.

And CSC officials, having successfully collaborated with Google in the past, viewed the RFP as an opportunity to examine how cloud computing could work in a public-sector environment in which concerns about privacy, security and delivery are paramount, he said.

“We agreed that we would bid it together, with us priming and Google being the service provider as a subcontractor,” Gaffney said.

The team offered several advantages the city could not ignore. CSC had experience designing and building major e-mail networks for large companies with as many as 50,000 users.

For its part, Google “will spend way more money on security than the city of Los Angeles could hope to spend,” Gaffney said.

CSC announced the five-year, $7.2 million contract win in December 2009.

“You can’t even compare that to what it would cost us to run another e-mail system in-house,” Levin said.

A recent study of cloud computing costs by Darrell West of the Brookings Institution included an analysis by the Los Angeles city administrator of its projected transition to a cloud system and its potential savings.

The analysis found that the five-year costs of running the Google system would be $17.5 million, 23.6 percent less than the $22.9 million for operating the existing system during that same period.

In addition, by transitioning to the cloud, the city would need nine fewer people in its IT department.

Levin said those numbers are accurate.

Under the agreement, the Falls Church, Va., contractor is providing systems integration and user services, including solution architecture and design, integration with the city’s identity management system, migration of live and archive e-mail data, and setup.

CSC also will provide tutorials for trainers and administrators and ongoing account and service-level management as an authorized reseller of Google apps.

Among the first tasks, CSC created a pilot group of about 250 users to test the Google system and determine whether any adjustments were needed to the tools that would move data from the existing system to the cloud.

“Then we moved 2,500 [users] a couple of weeks later,” Gaffney said. “And [then] the plan was to stand down and really digest that move and make sure we had everything covered.”

The pilot program now under way includes some 2,700 users, but the city plans to have everybody online by the end of June, Levin said.

“We’ve been learning that there are certain pieces of our network that we need to shore up a little bit in terms of performance,” she said.

Levin added that she has learned that there is no way to compare every function of the legacy application with what the cloud e-mail system can offer. “But that would be true of any IT project.”

“Most people are very comfortable with Internet-based mail systems,” Gaffney said, adding that Gmail differs little from the new municipal system, with the exception of higher levels of security needed for some of the city’s agencies.

When completed in June, the cloud-based Google e-mail system will cover about 30,000 municipal workers, including social-services agencies, the Los Angeles Police Department and the city’s emergency responders.

Because of security needs, the city’s public safety agencies and first responders will be administered separately in Google’s new secure government cloud, Levin said.

Suite of Tools

In addition to the improved security and cost savings, users gain increased capabilities, including a suite of collaboration tools and videoconferencing, Gaffney said.

Although the value of the Los Angeles contract is small by CSC standards, it could lead to other state and local contracting in the future, Gaffney said, because “the way the city set up the contract, it is available to other entities in the state of California.”

Levin said the contract was written purposely to assist other municipalities.

In drawing up the contract, “we realized two things,” she said. “One, the amount of time it takes any government agency to get contracts through is large. And No. 2, there are not many software-as-a-service contracts out there.”

“Once they see that it works and that the savings are there and that the users are positive, then what we expect — and the city expects — is that there will be some significant activity in terms of other counties and cities wanting to use the contract and the pricing negotiated there in order to add Google without going through the acquisition process that the city had to go through,” Gaffney said.

It also will enable California public-sector agencies to realize similar benefits in innovation, productivity and cost avoidance without the need for a lengthy and complex procurement cycle, Levin said.

Some jurisdictions already have expressed interest in using the contract.

“There’s nothing like doing it at scale to understand what are the real issues around technology and security that we think are relevant for our other clients around the world,” Gaffney said.