Are Public Mail Systems a Danger in Developing Countries?

Over the past two years I’ve interviewed dozens of government ICT managers in countries throughout Asia, the Caribbean, and Europe.  One of the surprising items collected during the interviews is the large number of government employees – some at the highest levels, using public mail systems for their professional communications.

While this might appear as a non-issue with some, others might find it both a security issue (by using a foreign commercial company to process and store government correspondence), as well as an identity issue (by using an XXX@gmail.com or XXX@yahoo.com ) while communicating with a government employee or official.

Reasons provided in interviews concluded the reason why government employees are using commercial email systems include:

  • Lack of timely provisioning by government ICT managers
  • Concerns over lack of privacy within a government-managed email system
  • Desire to work from home or while mobile, and the government system does not support remote or web access to email (or the perception this is the case)
  • Actual mail system performance is better on public systems than internal government-operated systems
  • Government ICT systems have a high internal transfer cost, even for simple utilities such as email

and so on.

When pressed further, many were not aware of the risk that government correspondence processed through public systems potentially resulted in images being stored on storage systems probably located in other countries.  Depending on the country, that email image could easily be provided to foreign law enforcement agencies under lawful warrants – thus exposing potentially sensitive information for exploitation by a foreign government.

Are Public Email Accounts Bad?

Not at all.  Most of us use at least one personal email address on a public mail system, some many addresses.  Public systems allow on-demand user creation of accounts, and if desired allow individuals to create anonymous identities for use when using other social media or public networks. 

Public addresses can separate an individual’s online identity from their “real world” identity, allowing higher levels of privacy any anonymous participation in social media or other activities where the user wishes to not have their full identity revealed.

The addresses are also quite simple to use, cost nothing, and are in use around the world.

Governments are also starting to make better use of commercial or public email outsourcing, with the City of Los Angeles being one of the more well-known projects.  The City of LA has service level agreements with Google (their outsource company), assuring security an confidentiality, as well as operational service levels. 

This is no doubt going to be a continuing trend, with public private partnerships (PPPs) relieving government users from the burden of infrastructure and some applications management.  With the US CIO Vivek Kundra aggressively pushing the national data center consolidation and cloud computing agenda, the move towards hosted or SaaS applications will increase.

Many benefits here as well, including:

  1. Hosted mail systems may keep an image of mail in storage – much more secure than if an individual PC loses single images of mail from a POP server
  2. Access from any Internet connected workstation or computer (of course assuming good passwords and security)
  3. Standardization among organizational user (both for mail formatting and client use)
  4. Cheaper operating costs

To address recent budget and human resource challenges, the City of Orlando moved its e-mail and productivity solution to the cloud (application and cloud  hosting services provided by Google).  The City has realized a 65 percent reduction in e-mail costs and provided additional features to increase the productivity of workers. (CIO Council, State of Public sector Cloud Computing)

For developing countries this is probably a good thing – have all the features and services of the best in class email systems, while significantly reducing the cost and burden of developing physical data center facilities.

But for the meantime, as that strategy and vision is defined, the use of public or cloud hosted email services in many developing countries in one of convenience.  We will only hope that commercial email providers safeguard data processed by government user’s personal accounts, used for communicating all levels of government information, with the same service level agreements offered large users such as the City of LA or City of Orlando.

Selecting Your Data Center Part 1 – Understanding the Market

The data center industry continues to evolve with mergers, acquisitions, and a healthy crop of emerging companies. New data center products and services Old Data Centerare hitting the street, an aggressive debate on the model of selling space vs. power, and alternatives to physical data center space in the cloud are giving us a confusing maze of alternatives to meet our outsourcing needs.

The data center market is not unique. For example, in Southern California we have a wide variety of supermarkets and grocery stores including VONs, Ralphs, Albertsons, Jons, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and lots of others. All grocery stores basically sell the same kinds of products, with very few exceptions.

What makes you go to VONs, rather than Whole Foods? Is it location? Prices? Image? A social issue?

The data center industry is not significantly different. In a city such as Los Angeles you have Equinix, Switch and Data, Savvis, BT Infonet, CoreSite, US Colo, Digital Realty, Level 3 – just to name a few. What makes one facility more attractive than another to fulfill your collocation needs?

Data centers, at the most common denominator, have traditionally offered:

  • Concrete (space for cabinets, racks, cages, suites, etc)
  • Power
  • Air conditioning
  • Interconnections

If all data centers offer the basic components listed above, then what discriminates the data centers from one another?

Now we can add additional alternatives to the basic data center model – the public cloud services provider/CSP and Software as a Service/SaaS.

As a potential data center tenant (this includes “virtual” data center tenants living in a CSP infrastructure) we have to evaluate all the above components, and determine which collocation or data center provider will best meet our facility, budget, and connectivity needs.

The Sense of Urgency

The CIO of the United States, Vivek Kundra, recently pressed the case for data center consolidation within the US government, as well as offering a strong recommendation that the US data industry strongly consider moving their operations into either consolidated data centers or virtualize within a cloud provider.

It is clear that data centers used by small and medium companies, as well as most content delivery companies, find better efficiencies in bringing their eCommerce and Internet-facing parts of their business into the data center, and locally interconnect with the Internet service provider community.

The cost of building a data center, providing staffing to manage the data center, and ensuring the efficiency of power and cooling usage is beyond the core competence of most companies. The need for disaster recovery plans, offsite storage, and other business continuity planning are just a few of the long list of items we need to consider as part of an overall information technology/IT or general business plan.

The potential waste of operational expenses, capital budgets, and resulting market “opportunity cost” justifies all companies at least consider outsourcing all or some of their IT operations – particularly as data center and CSPs increase their capabilities.

With the availability of netbooks, online applications (SaaS), and server-based office automation products, all companies should put this on their annual review list. Even the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) recently announced their decision to outsource the email to Google. This model does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

The “Selecting Your Data Center” Series

This series will walk through the process of identifying the need for outsourcing, identifying the best location for your data center, discriminating between the alternatives, and finally getting to your decision.

We welcome all comments, experiences, and discussions related to the data center community that would provide productive feedback for a potential data center or CSP tenant.

John Savageau, Long Beach

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