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Los Angeles moves to Gmail and 'cloud' computing

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The City of Los Angeles has voted to overhaul its e-mail system, converting it all to Gmail. Some say it's a victory for Google, which is trying to replace Microsoft applications in government cubicles everywhere. But some in L.A. are concerned about storing public data on Web-based servers.

L.A. will spend more than $7 million to switch to Gmail, making it the first city in the country to convert its entire e-mail system to Google software. The District of Columbia uses Gmail on a limited basis. But being a pioneer can be nerve-racking.

Computing In The 'Cloud'

Bernard Parks is an L.A. City Council member. He voted to approve the Google contract, but he's nervous. "There's no place you can go in the world and say, 'Let me look at it,' " he said.

Parks is talking about the way e-mails will be stored in the new system. The move means the city will start to store public data on remote servers instead of internal ones. This is called "cloud computing." It represents a new trend in data storage, and it's at the center of Google's business strategy. The company has plans to create a government cloud consisting of remote servers securely located throughout the U.S. that would store public data.

David Girouard, president of Google's Enterprise division, insists the data will be safe. "Their data is their data, and not ours," said Girouard. "We have no rights to distribute that data or data-mine it or use it in any other way other than to provide the designated service to the City of Los Angeles."

Plus, says Girouard, the move to Gmail will save L.A. millions in the long term. Google is keenly aware of the economic times, says Richi Jennings, analyst for Ferris Research in London. So Google is beginning to market its software now to businesses and government as an affordable alternative to Microsoft applications.

Google Wants To Be Taken Seriously

"It's strategic from Google's perspective because they want to be taken seriously not only in the small, medium enterprise, but also in the large enterprise," said Jennings. "And they want to be taken seriously for government work."

Google was certainly taken seriously by Microsoft. The software giant sent lobbyists to L.A. to try to persuade the city that the move to Google would be a reckless one. Google's lobbyists were there, too, defending the company's reputation in the industry. Councilman Parks, though, still has some questions.

"They may have a good reputation in the industry, but I think we have to identify what their industry is. And their industry, from what I can determine, is primarily ad sales."

In fact, 97 percent of Google's revenue comes from advertising sales. Still, in this new world, more companies like Google are handling private and public data. It's cheap, it's easy, and it's a legal gray area. And it also raises questions about what happens to your information when it travels into the "cloud."