L.A. City Council To Vote On Google E-mail Contract

Tue, Oct 27, 2009 at 10:26 am

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

    To Google or not to Google?

    That’s the $7.25-million question the Los Angeles City Council is
    expected to answer Tuesday 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

    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

    "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.

    Contact the author at: [email protected]

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