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Enterprise E-mail for DoD?

The Army reports* spending over $400 million annually in operating costs to support organization-specific e-mail systems. That supports 1.6 million mailboxes as a cost of $250 per mailbox which does not include the costs of communications (reported within DISA budget) or development costs.

An examination of available Software-as-a-Service (Saas) e-mail services shows that richly featured enterprise e-mail services are already available for prices as low as $8/seat, inclusive of several mailboxes per user.  There are also hosted e-mail services available with higher prices and with a range of features which far exceed current DoD requirements.

Most importantly, all of the available cloud SaaS e-mail services report lower than 0.001% of downtime.

An estimate of possible savings from migration to a standard DoD enterprise-wide e-mail could be more than $1 billion in operating costs reductions.

What steps can be taken to deliver such savings?

The initial migration steps toward a cloud hosted SaaS service, offered by DISA, is now taking place.  The Army is replacing Army Knowledge On-Line (AKO) with Microsoft’s proprietary web-based offering. With only 4% of mailboxes moved by end of June 2011, the Army has experienced outages of e-mail service of over five hours. What is the cause of such outages is not clear, though the processing capacity of the nine DISA DECCs to maintain better than 99.999% availability is yet to be demonstrated.

The DISA is migrating individual legacy mailboxes with the purpose of delivering e-mails without any effect on the user. To achieve that objective modifications were added to the Microsoft standard offering. Consequently, even small variations on the Active Directory must be “cleaned up” before conversion can take place. That is hard to do. Active Directories are maintained at over 300 separate sites for the Army, each with a slightly different variation in software implementation. DISA is required to conduct the transfer of existing records, all past e-mails, all documents and all attachments without alteration.

The challenge of making a smooth transition of so many variables is not manageable given what is the condition of the legacy systems. As result undocumented exceptions had to be handled by adding help desk personnel. The Army also found that it operated e-mails systems with inconsistent firewalls, had problems with variations how Common Access Cards were implemented and had integration issues with different versions of Microsoft Vista, Outlook and Exchange.**

There are also added complexities, such as variations in local licensing agreements and security processes that make any migration of diverse legacy e-mails to a standard e-mail environment too difficult to achieve given the limitations on time and funding.

The Army’s migration to the DISA cloud for the delivery enterprise e-mail services is supposed to be a prototype for the rest of DoD to follow.  That is receiving ample attention. For instance, a Committee of the Congressional Armed Services Committee has slashed the Army’s e-mail services plans by 98% of the FY12 request for $85.4 million until better justification of spending plans is received, though some of the underlying technical issues have so far not received sufficient attention. At this rate the realizations of a standard enterprise e-mail system for DoD, operated exclusively by DISA, is receding in the distant future.

If the Army’s approach to an enterprise e-mail system is to serve as a prototype for DoD, the migration from a customized to an enterprise standard must be simplified. It is inconceivable how the enormous variety of existing e-mail implementations within the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corp as well within a multiplicity of Agencies can be wedged into a DoD-wide standard SaaS e-mail. The existing e-mail services have too many changes and modifications to be ported into a single standard environment without a huge expenditure for the coding of local fixes and for conversion software.

Consideration should be given for choosing a single low cost, open source, highly secure, DoD interoperable and upgradeable SaaS system as a standard. It should be extensible for additional features such as cooperation, information sharing and document management.

E-mails have a limited shelf life of only few days. DoD components could convert to a private secure SaaS cloud instantly, with only a short switch over period. For archival purposes, DoD components could then operate temporarily dual e-mail systems until DoD standard processes take over all e-mail functions.  If any of the selected archival records require retention, conversion utilities could be used to do that at a fraction of the enormous cost it takes in the current scheme to impose on the entire migration backward compatibility for all legacy e-mails.

*, July 2011, page 22
** Signal, August 2011, p. 10

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