Washington embraces Google technology

Vivek Kundra, CTO of the District of Columbia, says he found two compelling reasons to switch the D.C. government over to Gmail and Google Apps: first, its cheap cost would save the taxpayer money by avoiding bloated software contracts. Second, he believes Google technology will help ensure business continuity and the safety of data in the event of a disaster or disruption.

Washington D.C. hasn’t been Kundra’s first tenure in governmental IT. On September 11, 2001, he took a job as director of infrastructure for technology for Arlington, Virginia. The terrorist attacks at the time made him think how storing all information on premise had its pitfalls.

“That was my introduction to public service,” he says. “In Arlington, what we realized after those attacks, was that if we had our one main data center shut down, we wouldn’t be able to support government.”

So when he took over as the district’s CTO in 2007, he decided that “moving to the cloud” would have its merits, because a company such as Google has so many data centers that it would ensure better business continuity and security.

“Their data centers are geographically dispersed,” he says. “That was attractive to me from a security perspective.”

The enterprise version of Google Apps, a software suite that includes e-mail (Gmail), calendar, documents & spreadsheets, wikis (known as Google Sites) and instant messaging costs a mere $50 per user per year. When Kundra thought of deploying it across the 38,000 employees and 86 agencies his department supported for technology, he saw immense cost savings.

“The average cost of [enterprise] email is 8 dollars per month [per user],” he says. “For half that, we can get more value beyond just e-mail. We’re getting Google apps and video for the enterprise. We’re getting the ability to share spreadsheets and documents.”

The extra value, he says, comes in the Apps. One piece of the Google Apps software that people have been using has been Google Docs & Spreadsheets. As an example, Kundra recently had been working on a performance plan with his deputies. Instead of e-mailing around a document for them to see the objectives that he wanted included, he sent around a Google Doc, which allows his deputies to make suggestions in real time while maintaining a document with one version of the truth.

Kundra also believes that users will be predisposed to using Google Apps because, especially from an end-user perspective, it mirrors what technologies they use at home.

“When employees go home, they have access to more technology at home than they do at work,” he says. “I said ‘wait a minute, people have this access at home, how can I bring it to the government? It made a compelling reason for us to move that direction.”

Many of the agencies have been using Google Sites (built on wiki technology) to share information with the public to create and update procurements, Kundra adds. Google Sites can be used by people with no programming experience to build internally facing websites (intranets) or public websites.

The adoption of Google Apps falls along Kundra’s strategy to control bloated IT costs (long a trouble spot in governmental IT) while providing his employees and the citizens they serve with the best technology possible.

“In D.C. government, the schools spent $25 million on Peoplesoft and it failed,” he says. “That’s $25 million down the toilet. Government needs to start asking the question, are we building an IT organization? Or do we want to move out of the system of owning hardware and get services to deliver solutions to customers faster. We spend far too much on enterprise software roll-outs.”

So far, he has rolled out Gmail to 2,000 employees spread across the different agencies. But he says the plan is to roll it out to all 38,000 over time to realize the full cost savings. He also says he plans to pursue more software as a service (SaaS) applications in the future to improve services for employees while curtailing costs.

“Why should I spend millions on enterprise apps when I can do it at one-tenth cost and ten times the speed?” he says. “It’s a win-win for me.”

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