Minn. moves communications, collaboration services to the cloud

According to an announcement made at the NASCIO 2010 Annual Conference being held in Miami this week, the state of Minnesota will begin delivering communication and collaboration services through a cloud platform. The decision allows Minnesota to capitalize on three main pressure points for government – security, cost and capacity – State CIO Gopal Khanna told CivSource in an interview Monday.

Minnesota’s Office of Enterprise Technology (OET) will use Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) to deliver the state’s Enterprise Unified Communications and Collaborations services, Mr. Khanna and OET Assistant Commissioner Tarek Tomes said.

“We wanted to take a different look at how we deliver services in Minnesota,” State CIO Gopal Khanna, said during the interview.

By leveraging Microsoft’s cloud-based BPOS, state employees will be able to use email, instant messaging, web-based collaboration and conferencing through Microsoft’s online hosting. The enterprise-wide agreement will allow Minnesota to be the first to leverage the cloud at this scale, saving millions in upgrade investments and ongoing costs.

In March, Microsoft announced that BPOS enhancements improved security standards and certifications, including many needed to work with government data, including HIPAA, FERPA, and FIPS. For Minnesota, BPOS applications will be hosted in a dedicated environment delivered through a direct connection to the state’s secure network.

For OET customers, Mr. Tomes said, the budget crunch and the overall economy have an inverse affect on the demand for IT services. According to Tomes, like many states, Minnesota has seen a drastic uptick in demand for unemployment insurance benefits, food stamps and other government services – such volumes strain government IT operations.

By leveraging cloud-based solutions, “We really have an ability to give them exactly the capacity they require,” Tomes said.

Mr. Khanna said the state’s 33,000 executive branch employees will be the first users of the hosted suite. There may also be an opportunity to extend the tools beyond those working in Saint Paul.

“This decision puts us in a unique position to provide these services not just to the executive branch, but also to the judicial branch, the legislative branch and officials in county or city government,” he said.

Minnesota has experience with this level of shared infrastructure. Minnesota’s Network for Enterprise Telecommunications (MNET) is a model for shared services, Mr. Khanna said. By making voice, data, video, and Internet transmissions available for other levels of government, Minnesota has the knowledge needed to make the most out of a cloud deployment.

This experience is important, says Microsoft’s Stuart McKee. “Minnesota’s current consolidation environment gives them a predictable roadmap, they’re not jumping off the cliff,” McKee said.

Khanna agreed, saying, “This will create a better platform for the future.”