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Google Apps for Gov battles fear of floating data

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Analysis Google Apps for Government is designed to meet the information-security laws that bind federal agencies. But it's also meant to provide a kind of comfort blanket for any government agency — from the federal level down to the local — that's wary of moving their data onto third-party servers in the so-called cloud.

"There is a fundamental trust question about turning over services and data to a third party," Google president of enterprise Dave Girouard said when announcing the service this morning at the company's headquarters in Mountain View. "Some people are very comfortable with it. Others find it intrinsically scary. This is just a step down that road...to develop procedures and processes to bring credibility to the cloud."

Google has tweaked the security controls used by its existing Google Apps online suite in an effort to gain FISMA (Federal Information Security Management Act) certification, and last Thursday, a FISMA rubber-stamp was applied by the federal government's General Services Administration. But the new service also segregates Gmail and Google Calendar data into their own US-only portion of Google's back-end infrastructure — a move that goes beyond FISMA and that, as Google freely admits, doesn't necessarily mean added security.

"I don't think data location and security are synonymous," Girouard said. "I think there is a government question, which is: 'I want to know where my data is and I want to have some say over that.' And I think that's a fair and reasonable request. We're trying to accommodate that in the cloud computing model, which operates at a fairly massive scale, in a reasonable way."

Google says that Gmail and Calendar data have been placed into sections of various existing US data centers that are physically separate from other parts of Google's infrastructure. Famously, Google's data centers are pieced together with self-contained shipping containers. But the data is still replicated across various "threat zones" — separate geographical regions — in an effort to prevent loss. "If there's an earthquake on the west coast," said Girouard, "you would be served by a data center on the east coast."

Speaking with The Reg, Google director of product management for enterprise Matt Glotzbach indicated that although the data is segregated, others parts of an application will continue to run on other parts of Google's vast infrastructure — but the company says that data will remain segregated. In the future, the company intends to segregate data from other services as well.

In similar fashion, although FISMA applies solely to the federal government, Google hopes this rubber stamp while boost use of its online apps across all government agencies, from the federal to the state to the local. "The US government has a lot of credibility," Girouard said. "If they believe that something is trustworthy, then we believe that a lot of others will begin to appreciate as well." This includes the City of Los Angeles, whose switch to Google Apps has been delayed in part due to concerns over security.

According to Google, the Los Angeles police department wanted to do its own background checks on Google employees who would have access to the City's data, and Google balked. Google already does background checks, and the company says it's not feasible for agencies to do their own because of the scale at which it operates. Google acknowledges that convincing agencies to make the leap to the web is a bit of a slog and that the Los Angeles — the second largest city in the US — perhaps wasn't the best place to start. But it believes that FISMA certification and data segregation will help turn the tide.

"This will help push [the City of Los Angeles deployment] forward," Glotzbach said. "But we're continuing to work with the city to make that deployment a success...the requirement for a project of that size breaks new ground for the cloud. We're still working with them to make sure they're comfortable."

"We would love to have rolled out to 50 smaller cities ahead of LA," Girouard said. "But in the end, it will be a great success for the city, and for Google, and it will help open things up for other cities."

Google also said that that it's investigating similar government certifications for countries outside the US. "We have nothing to announce at this time," Glotzbach said. "But we definitely have an interest in pushing this beyond the US, and there are certifications in other industries as well that we want to meet."

Asked if the company would seek a kind of government approval for Google's Chrome OS — an operating system that keeps all applications and data inside the web browser — Google CEO Eric Schmidt said "Yes. But let's ship it first." The OS is due on netbooks this fall.

Asked if Google intended to create a version of Google Apps for Native Client — the Chrome and Chrome OS plug-in that run native code inside the browser — Glotzbach told The Reg that he was not prepared to comment one way or another. But we get the impression this isn't on the radar.

Native Client has been billed as a technology for boosting the performance of games and other web-based multimedia applications, but it could also be applied to the sort of productivity applications in the Google Apps suite. In many ways, Google Apps still can't match the tools offered by a Microsoft Office.

Recently, Mountain View moved Google Apps off the Google Gears platform, preferring to build the service solely around HTML5 and other web standards. This means that Google Apps no longer offers off-line access to certain applications, but the company is working to add this back into the product. Glotzbach declined to give a date when this might arrive.

Google Apps for Government is available today. The company said in September that it was working towards FISMA certification, and clearly it was simply waiting for the final word from the General Services Administration before launching the product. Asked if Google was "going after" Microsoft with the new service, Girouard said that any attack on Redmond was "a pleasant side effect." The service's primary main aim is to meet the law — and battle public perception. ®

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