When an electrical transformer blew out at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., last spring, the campus was without power for a week. Generators helped keep critical services up and running, including the school’s computer systems. Still, the academy suffered a disastrous loss of email when the on-premise servers reached capacity.

As it happened, however, about a 100 staff members were piloting a cloud-based e-mail service that week. They were the only people on campus who didn’t lose the use of e-mail during the blackout.

Since then, the campus has gone “full bore” to the cloud for email, migrating to Google Apps, said Lt. Jason Warren, branch chief of hardware and software systems at the academy. About 1,000 cadets and 500 faculty and staff members are using Google Apps, largely for email and documents, he said. The academy acquired a 2,000-account domain and a 25 GB mailbox for each user from Google to allow for any future expansion in the user base, he added.

While the loss of email last year underscored the need for a reliable alternative, several other factors drove the academy’s decision to move its email service to the cloud. Anywhere access for cadets was one.

“We needed to come up with a solution that met [the cadets’] mobility needs,” Warren said. “They go on liberty to their sponsor family’s home on weekends, and they depart for the summer. Having a solution tied to the campus was cumbersome. As more and more cadets began to use email as their only form of communication for recall or emergencies, we needed to have a better way.”

Another consideration was cost. Google Apps for educational institutions and nonprofit users is free, Warren said. The cost of running an in-house email system, such as Microsoft Exchange, would be at least $100,000 year–the typical annual salary for an email administrator, he said.

What finally sold academy officials, though, was Google’s security controls–always a concern for federal officials when migrating applications or services to a public cloud.

“In the end, it doesn’t matter if [a cloud] is public or private or otherwise, if you don’t have the security controls in place, it’s not secure,” said David Mihalchik, head of the federal business development team for Google Apps.

Warren said he was “thoroughly impressed” with Google’s extensive work on security controls. For one thing, Google Apps has been certified for compliance with Federal Information Security Management Act Requirements for government systems.

“I flew out to their Reston office and read their four-inch thick FISMA report under videotaped surveillance in a glass room,” he said. “Basically, I was looking for any security gaps or holes that would impact the government and the academy.”

In addition to FISMA compliance, Google and the academy have a memorandum of understanding that precludes Google from hosting any academy data outside of its U.S. data centers, Warren said.

Google also has deployed two-step verification, adding another layer of security to the academy’s account. “When Google implemented two-factor authentication, we were quick to test it and make it a mandate for all of our Apps users,” Warren said.

Even though the academy’s email system is running on Google servers, academy officials are able to retain administrative control.

When an inadvertent email went out during last year’s commencement, Warren was able quickly access Google Message Discovery and wipe out the message. “I feel like I almost have better control in some instances,” he said.

Explained Mihalchik, “Agencies are using our infrastructure but they maintain the same kind of control over the infrastructure as they would with an on-premises [system].”

The Coast Guard Academy’s move to the cloud for email services is an example of how cloud computing can benefit the government, Warren said.

“The government is going to have to do something to reduce cost,” he said. “We’ve got to start thinking differently. If I can get a 25 gig mailbox for free for every single cadet on campus, how can I beat that?”

Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard Academy