Behind the DVA's decision to move 450,000 users to Microsoft's cloud Credit: Adam Fagan

For the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), moving 450,000 e-mailboxes (and the associated calendars) from its existing infrastructure to the Microsoft Office 365 for Government cloud wasn't so much a choice as it was a necessity. 

The VA's legacy Microsoft Exchange servers were about decade old, says Charles De Sanno, Executive Director of Enterprise Systems Engineering for the department, and were already pushing the limits of what the system could withstand. As one of the largest healthcare organizations in the world, public sector or otherwise, the VA was spending $5 million a year in hardware maintenance alone -- not including cooling, power, or even staff salary.

That's hardly ideal, and three years ago, when it came time to start the modernization process, the cloud was at the top of De Sanno's list of options to investigate, even if he was uncertain if the VA's relationship with Microsoft would continue (and regardless of the Federal CIO Office's Cloud First policy). After all, De Sanno says, merely upgrading the in-place infrastructure would have been a $65 million project on its own, and the VA -- and by extension, taxpayers -- would still be on the hook for those maintenance costs.

The official bidding process took place over the summer, and earlier in November, the VA announced that the $36 million, five-year contract for a Microsoft Office 365 cloud migration had been awarded to HP Enterprise Services. 

Obviously, the potential cost benefits for the VA were too attractive to ignore. And De Sanno expects that even for this lowered cost, Microsoft Office 365's service level agreement (SLA) guarantees better uptime than he was getting in-house. 

But when it comes to the cloud, cost is only a third of the equation. How can a governmental organization that took three years to settle on a route to upgrade its e-mail reap the cloud's promise of greater agility and employee collaboration? De Sanno's answer: Work within the system and leave the pathways clear.

That is, rather than have two separate bidding processes for a pilot program and a full deployment, De Sanno was able to get approved and offer up a contract that would first require the partner -- HP, as it turned out to be -- to complete a successful rollout of 15,000 seats in March 2013. After 6 to-90 days of careful observation and assurances that Microsoft Office 365 is, indeed, the right choice for the VA, the contract provides for the remaining 435,000 mailbox migrations without the need for a burdensome, extended competition process. 

Similarly, Microsoft's PR for the VA's cloud migration project holds that the department is deploying 600,000 mailboxes. But in reality, De Sanno says that he's once again looking to avoid as much red tape as possible. Maybe there are only 450,000 employees and contractors at the VA who need an Office 365 mailbox today. But he'd rather not have to go through the bureaucracy when they need to go over that number. 

As for software-as-a-service, De Sanno says that collaboration may well be in the VA's future. The contract with HP allows for the addition of the full range of Microsoft Office 365 services, including cloud-hosted versions of Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft Office in addition to the existing e-mail deployments, without needing to go through the contract process. 

That said, De Sanno says that everything the VA does is very deliberate, and cloud collaboration is no exception. Just because Microsoft Office 365 would be the easy route, it doesn't mean that it's the right choice for the VA. If Google Apps, Zoho, or a different provider entirely turns out to the best application for the job, De Sanno says that the department is under no obligation to Microsoft's cloud here. 

The bottom line here is that while the Department of Veteran Affairs may never have the kind of flexibility and agility as a startup when it comes to IT infrastructure, proper planning can still teach the 2-ton elephant how to dance. 

That's not to say that De Sanno foresees a stress-free migration. Migrating legacy mailboxes from on-premises Microsoft Exchange to Office 365 is a tricky proposition, and even though the VA is taking advantage of the public sector-friendly Office 365 for Government, getting the proper security clearances for the cloud is proving to be a challenge. Moreover, relying on external services for e-mail means that the VA is going to have to beef up its networking infrastructure. 

Mobility, too, is a question mark for the VA at this point. While e-mail will be moving up to the cloud entirely, De Sanno says that BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and other ancillary services have to remain on-premises. The VA's IT team is keeping a close eye on Microsoft's Windows 8 mobile strategy, he says, with native Exchange support as a major attractor. Figuring out mobile device management (MDM) and BYOD are also on the "to-do" list, but this is only the start. 

But De Sanno puts it best. With the Federal CIO's office pushing government agencies at cloud services, the fact that the VA is moving to the cloud just as much for scalability, elasticity, and reliability as it is for cost savings is going to set the tone for future large-scale public sector migrations. The VA may not be the recipient of the quickest Microsoft Office 365 deployment of all time, but it's certainly one of the largest, and success here is going to be a major validator for Microsoft's public cloud, especially in the government sector. 

"We'll pave the way for the rest," De Sanno says. 

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