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L.A. won't put LAPD on Google's cloud-based email system

The City Council votes to scale back L.A.'s email services contract with Google, saying its technology could not meet the security needs of departments including police and the city attorney's office.

December 14, 2011|By David Sarno, Los Angeles Times

In a setback for Google Inc.'s ambitions to be a major provider of email service to governments, Los Angeles has abandoned plans to move 13,000 law enforcement personnel to the Internet company's cloud-based messaging system.

The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to scale back the city's email services contract with Google, agreeing with staff analysis that the company's technology could not meet the security needs of crucial departments including police and the city attorney's office. The city will continue using Google's email system for 17,000 other employees.

The latest security worries are likely to slow Google's push into the lucrative government email business, analysts said. The Los Angeles contract was considered a marquee win for Google, which two years ago beat Microsoft Corp., the dominant email services provider.

But city officials said that Google's system "does not have the technical ability to comply with the city's security requirements" and that those requirements are "not currently compatible with cloud computing."

Google has long touted its deal with Los Angeles to other cities interested in getting out of the business of maintaining their own email systems, which often involved large rooms of expensive server computers and a trained support staff. Google's pitch was that cities like Los Angeles could save money and effort by moving their email and documents to Google's cloud — its large network of data centers where it stores clients' emails along with many other types of data.

But according to city officials, Google may have overestimated its ability to satisfy strict federal security rules about sensitive data from law enforcement agencies.

"There was definitely a time when Google seemed positive they were going to meet the requirements," said Maggie Goodrich, the Los Angeles Police Department's chief information officer.

She noted, however, that the rules were written for law enforcement agencies that store their own data and did not consider the increasingly popular cloud computing model.

"It will be difficult for law enforcement to move to a cloud solution until the [security requirements] and cloud are more in line with each other," Goodrich said.

For its part, Google noted that the complicated security rules were not part of the original contract it signed with Los Angeles in 2009 and that the city raised the issue well after the deal had been completed.

"We're disappointed that the city introduced requirements for the LAPD after the contract was signed that are, in its own words, 'currently incompatible with cloud computing,'" Google spokesman Andrew Kovacs said in a statement. He also noted that 17,000 employees were successfully using the Google system and that it had already saved city taxpayers "more than two million dollars."

Even so, Los Angeles' trouble with Google's email system may cause other cities to think twice before moving their operations into the cloud, said security analyst John Pescatore of research firm Gartner Inc.

"It was an area where cash-strapped cities took a look at cost reduction and jumped too soon without looking at their own requirements," he said.

In a unanimous vote, the City Council agreed to change the terms of its $7.2-million contract with Google so that LAPD employees and others will stay on an older on-site email system. Google will pay up to $350,000 per year for those employees to use that system, which is run by Novell, a competitor.

When the contract was signed, Los Angeles also received a $250,000 advance as part of an agreement to encourage other cities to adopt the Google system. The city will now get to keep that money independent of whether it promotes the system.

In 2009, Google beat out rival Microsoft in a fierce contest to replace an aging email system for the city's 30,000 employees. Google promised that the new system would be faster and cheaper and would provide better security than computers sitting in city basements.

But despite the company's assurances, critics worried about whether Google's email system, which was initially designed as a free service for consumers, could provide adequate protection for sensitive government data. Cloud computing, they said, was still an unproven system.

Not long after it was approved, the contract began to run into hurdles concerning storage of the LAPD's data, and Google missed deadlines for moving city employees to its email system. Doubts began to arise about whether the LAPD would be able to move over to the system at all.

That question appeared to find an answer Wednesday as the city decided to keep the LAPD on the old system and officials said that when it comes to law enforcement, the cloud might not be ready for prime time.

david.sarno@latimes.com

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