The Veterans Affairs Department’s move to a cloud-based email system for its employees is nothing if not meticulous. When fully rolled out, in 2014, the new platform will give about 400,000 VA users — and eventually up to 600,000 — an array of collaborative tools and eventually yield tens of millions of dollars in savings on IT infrastructure for the department, VA officials expect.

But for the near term, in a carefully planned first phase, the department plans to migrate 15,000 users to Microsoft 365 for Government within a separate community cloud, by the end of March, said Charles De Sanno, VA’s executive director of enterprise systems engineering.

At that point, the department will put the brakes on the migration and spend several months conducting a comprehensive assessment of the pilot to determine the most prudent ways of moving forward, including how expeditiously the next increments of mailboxes can be converted to 365.

“What we wanted to do here was structure it with a smaller number of users up front,” De Sanno told Breaking Gov. “Through April and May and probably into June, we will be collecting information at all points–on performance, availability, how the vendor is performing and how fast we can move users into the service.”

The number of users to be moved in subsequent increments will depend on the results of the pilot and the amount of funding available to support the next increments, he said, adding that department expects to have all VA users on Office 365 sometime in 2014.

VA currently spends more than $5 million annually on its internal email systems, and the department would be facing major expenditures in coming years to replace the aging hardware that supports those systems.

Overall, VA’s cost avoidance by going to the cloud for email could be as much as $85 million.

In November, the VA awarded HP Enterprise Services a five-year contract valued at $36 million to lead and manage VA’s migration to Office 365. In addition to email, the service will provide VA users with shared calendars, instant messaging, web- and video conferencing and applications to enhance productivity and collaboration, such as cloud-based Office, Exchange, Linc and SharePoint.

“Our goal is for this contract to pay for itself in cost avoidance by eliminating the $5 million in maintenance fees on that aging equipment,” he said. “Certainly, we’re looking at $30 million to $40 million in cost savings [over five years] plus these systems [eventually] would have to replaced and for us to do that internally would cost $60 to $70 million.

“Moreover, he said, the $30 million to $40 million in savings on maintenance doesn’t include the cost of floor space, utilities and support staff, estimated at $20 million over five years. Overall, VA’s cost avoidance by going to the cloud for email could be as much as $85 million, De Sanno said.

Proceeding methodically from the outset is a lesson that VA officials learned in part from the Agriculture Department, which completed a successful migration of 120,000 employees in the U.S. and overseas to Office 365 in September 2011.

“Up front, it was important that we knew what we were getting ourselves into regarding the overhead and how fast we could promise to have the technology installed,” De Sanno said. “What we learned from [USDA] particularly was the amount of time that it took them to get the job done up front.”

Chris Smith, U.S. federal chief technology and innovation officer at Accenture and former chief information officer at the Agriculture Department, told Breaking Gov that it’s critical for government agencies switching to the cloud for email to go into the project with “eyes wide open.” Smith led USDA’s move to cloud-based email before leaving for Accenture last March.

“These are large scale, complex migrations. They do take a lot time for that up-front planning. Understanding the amount time and level of effort it’s going to take is extraordinarily important,” said Smith. “The biggest lesson learned [at USDA] was that it took longer that we would have liked it to…because of that complexity.”

Overall, USDA’s move to the cloud for email took almost a year to achieve, Smith said. “It took us three months longer on the planning cycle than I felt it needed to, so we ended up doing about seven month of planning,” he said. But the extra time spent on planning paid off because once the migration got under way the VA team was able to convert large numbers of mailboxes at one time-sometimes as many as 6,000 a night, he said.

Migration to cloud-based email will also result in a huge payoff for users, Smith and De Sanno agreed.

VA employees, for example, will see their mailbox space soar to 25G from 5G, De Sanno said. Seamless access to productivity and collaboration tools will also benefit users.

Email in the cloud also gives the department the “elasticity” to grow its user base without having to budget for, purchase and implement hardware, he added.

“That’s absolutely critical,” he said. “As the organization grows, it can grow infrastructure-wise.” Under the HP contract, the VA could expand email to as many as 600,000 users.

Moving to the cloud is about “so much more” than just email, Smith said. “It’s really about [deploying] a very sophisticated set of unified communications components so you’re bringing the organization to a point where users can communicate and collaborate across the entirety of the organization,” he said.

“This uptick in collaboration leads to greater productivity for all those individuals.”