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Google e-mail contract poses dilemma for L.A. City Council

Questions about cost, security and reliability remain, but the council is expected to decide today.

October 27, 2009|David Sarno

To Google or not to Google?

That's the $7.25-million question the Los Angeles City Council is expected to answer today as it ponders handing over control of its massive e-mail system to Google Inc.

Beyond questions of whether the city would save money, the decision is likely to influence other cities and businesses considering whether to stay with older e-mail programs, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook, or to jump into the future of cloud computing.

Nearly six months after city technology officials selected Google's proposal to replace the city's e-mail system (which is from neither Microsoft nor Google), the company is finding that victory at City Hall is anything but swift. The $7.25-million contract has been moving slowly through the council, including a committee meeting last week in which the panel could not agree on a recommendation.

Both the city and Google could stand to benefit significantly.

For the city, choosing the "cloud" model would let it avoid the cost and hassle of running its own e-mail system: The mail would be stored on Google's huge network of remote servers. And embracing the Web-based technology could give it status as an early adopter.

For Google, adding a marquee city to its roster could help attract larger government and corporate clients as it challenges Microsoft's dominance in the estimated $20-billion market for e-mail and office software.

But council members and outside critics have wondered why Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest city, would adopt a system whose security and reliability have not yet been rigorously tested by smaller municipalities.

"I feel a little bit like a guinea pig," Councilman Paul Koretz said. "If some reasonably sized city had done all the things we're trying to do, and we were sure that it worked, it would be an easier answer."

Koretz was one of several council members to express doubts about the proposal last week during a meeting of the city's Budget and Finance Committee, which heard nearly two hours of testimony from city officials, technology companies and consumer advocates debating the cost and necessity of the contract.

The committee decided not to vote on the issue, passing it along to the full council without a recommendation.

The question of whether the Google system would save money has emerged as a key concern for council members.

Google has described its e-mail and document software, Google Apps, as a "dramatically lower-cost solution," and officials in the city's technology agency have said it would save the city millions of dollars.

City analyses, meanwhile, have offered a confusing picture. A report released this month by the city administrative office found that moving to the Google system would cost $1.5 million more than keeping the existing system over the five-year life of the contract. But the same report seemed to specify that, looked at another way, the city would be saving nearly $6 million.

"I defy you to understand what it says," Councilman Bernard C. Parks, chairman of the budget committee, said in an interview. "I read it about four times and I finally wrote, 'Huh?' "

A report released late Monday adjusted the projection, saying that adopting the Google e-mail system would be significantly less expensive than keeping the current system.

At the committee meeting last week, Parks questioned the tangle of budgetary numbers -- and what he perceived as "hedging" in the way the earlier report was written.

"It didn't give me a warm feeling in my stomach that we should jump off this cliff together," Parks said.

Since last week, some council members have said they would support Google's bid.

Councilman Tony Cardenas said the current system may not be as dependable as it should be in the event of a disaster. In an emergency, "every path of communication is linked to a vital heartbeat," Cardenas said, noting that a disruption could disable the entire e-mail system. "This is about saving lives."

The issue of data security has also generated heated exchanges.

After concerns were raised about how Google would secure sensitive data from law enforcement agencies, the company announced plans to finish work on a "government cloud," a separate set of servers with enhanced security, sometime next year.

But completion of the government cloud is not a guarantee, said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy group that has been critical of the Google contract.

"If you build it and vet it and test it, great, but don't commit to going onto it until it actually exists," he said.

In the meantime, city technology officials have repeatedly contended that with or without a government cloud, Google offers better security than the e-mail system on which the city's 30,000 employees now depend.


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