Google will get a chance to unseat Microsoft at the Department of the Interior under a court ruling announced Wednesday that re-opens bids for the agency’s new email service, part of a nearly year-old tussle that highlights the gloves-off competition for government cloud contracts.
Late last year, Google sued the Department of the Interior, or DOI, claiming the government agency awarded a $49.3 million email contract to Microsoft without giving Google and its partners a fair chance to win the deal, and on Wednesday, a federal judge approved Google’s motion to dismiss the case. In court papers, Google said it had reached an agreement with the agency that will allow the company to compete for a new DOI contract.
“We’re pleased with the outcome of our discussions with the Department of Interior, and look forward to the opportunity to compete for its business and save taxpayers money,” Google said in a canned statement sent to Wired. The company declined to elaborate.
In court papers filed last week, the Department of Justice – which represented the government in the cast – denied that Google had reached any sort of agreement with the DOI. Presumably, the government wants to maintain the appearance of complete fairness. But at the very least, the DOI has now said that the RFQ (request for quote) it put out in July 2010 is “stale” and that it’s preparing to accept bids for a new contract.
In a statement sent to Wired, Microsoft said it too is pleased with the judge’s decision. “We are fully prepared to continue competing for the [DOI's] business and are confident that we offer the best cloud solutions and value,” the statement read. But in the past, Redmond has accused Google of slowing the wheels of progress with its suit against the DOI.
“The work of engineers and IT professionals was replaced, at least temporarily, by filings by lawyers,” read an April blog post from Microsoft corporate vice president and deputy general counsel David Howard. “This meant significant delay for the Department of the Interior, which was trying to save millions of dollars and upgrade the email services for its 88,000 employees.”
Google’s suit shows that the company isn’t afraid to take the gloves off in its tussle with Redmond – and that, yes, Microsoft doesn’t hesitate to punch back. As Mountain View pitches the web-based Google Apps to federal agencies, Microsoft is pushing its own online offerings: the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) and its successor, Office 365.
Google gloves come off
According to Google’s suit, when the DOI solicited bids last year for a hosted email service capable of serving its over 88,000 employees, the agency said it would only consider proposals involving Microsoft BPOS. Mountain View claimed the DOI’s approach was “unduly restrictive of competition”, seeking an injunction that would prevent the agency from moving ahead with its BPOS plan, and two months later, Judge Braden issued a temporary court order preventing the agency from awarding the contract to Microsoft.
The Mountain View web giant spent months trying to discuss Google Apps with the Department of the Interior, the suit says, and though it eventually met with the agency on multiple occasions, the talks were less than successful. During one meeting in April 2010, the suit says, the DOI told Google that a “path forward has already been chosen”, explaining that the company couldn’t bid for the contract because Google Apps didn’t provide the appropriate security.
After some additional back and forth, the suit says, the DOI questioned whether Google could meet FISMA (Federal Information Security Management Act) requirements or provide a service whose “underlying infrastructure” is dedicated to the DOI. The irony is that Microsoft BPOS didn’t have FISMA certification either. Later that summer, Google Apps received its certification, several months before BPOS.
Google held a press event at its Mountain View headquarters to announce its FISMA certification and roll out a new version of Google Apps specifically for government agencies. Yes, the company calls it Google Apps for Government. This new version didn’t provide dedicated infrastructure for a particular agency – as the DOI requested – but it did at least move in that direction. Apps for Government stored Gmail and Google Calendar data in a segment of Google’s back-end infrastructure that’s separate from web services used by non-government users, and in an effort further comfort government agencies, Google said that the data centers hosting this data were located in the continental United States.
It’s certified! But it’s not…
The DOI suit soon escalated into a very public war of words between Google and Microsoft. In a brief released to the court in December, the Department of Justice said that despite Google’s continued claims to the contrary, Apps for Government had not received FISMA certification from the General Services Administration (GSA), and in predictable fashion, Microsoft took this little bit of information to the interwebs. In a blog post, Redmond accused Google of making “misleading security claims” to the US government.
Google denied the accusation, insisting that the DoJ was misrepresenting the situation.
Last summer, Google received FISMA certification for its existing Google Apps Premier Edition. With certification in place, it then launched Google Apps for Government. According to Google, the GSA said that new Google Apps for Government name and its data center adjustments could be incorporated into Google’s existing certification, but this had yet to actually happen. Certification is a binary thing – either you have it or you don’t – so there’s something to be said for Microsoft’s stance. But it’s breathlessness was a bit over the top.
“I’ll be the first to grant that FISMA certification amounts to something. The Act creates a process for federal agencies to accredit and certify the security of information management systems like e-mail, so FISMA-certification suggests that a particular solution has proven that it has met an adequate level of security for a specific need,” read the blog post from Microsoft’s David Howard. “Open competition should involve accurate competition. It’s time for Google to stop telling governments something that is not true.”
In a statement sent to the press, Google’s David Mihalchik – a business development exec for the company’s government effort – was quick to point out that Microsoft BPOS wasn’t FISMA certified either. As he should. BPOS didn’t receive its certification until this past April.
Today, a Google spokesman told us that Google Apps for Government is now officially rubberstamped by the GSA. This may or may not change the DOI’s pick, but the agency will at least listen to new possibilities. In her ruling, Judge Braden said that if either Google or the government object to the DOI’s new contract, they’ll all come back to her court.