Google on Monday denied an allegation by rival Microsoft that it lied about an important government certification.
But an analyst with experience in dealing with the federal government, and its contract and bid practices, said Microsoft got it right.
"Microsoft's argument is certainly valid," said Donald Retallack, an analyst and research vice president at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash. research firm that focuses on Microsoft.
Yesterday, Microsoft cited recently-unsealed court documents, including a brief from the Department of Justice (DOJ) that said, "Notwithstanding Google's representations to the public at large, its counsel, the GAO and this Court, it appears that Google's Google Apps for Government does not have FISMA certification."
FISMA, or the Federal Information Security Management Act, is a set of security standards that some federal agencies require vendors to comply with.
"We did not mislead the court or our customers," David Mihalchik, who leads the strategy and business development for Google's Enterprise team, said in a statement.
"Google Apps received a FISMA security authorization from the General Services Administration [GAO] in July 2010. Google Apps for Government is the same system with enhanced security controls that go beyond FISMA requirements," said Mihalchik. "As planned, we're working with GSA [U.S. General Services Administration] to continuously update our documentation with these and other additional enhancements."
But that's not how things work in Washington D.C.
"Just because you're certified with one system doesn't mean you're certified with others," said Retallack, who before joining Directions worked for Boeing. While with the aerospace company, Retallack frequently dealt with the federal government on contracts that Boeing sought.
The issue comes down to Google's contention that because its Google Apps was FISMA certified, the superset Google Apps for Government suite was also certified. On its Web site, Google touts the latter as FISMA-certified.
"That's not the way that the government works," said Retallack. "That would be like saying that because an electrician had met code on one house, he was certified for all the houses he built. Based on my experience with the government, each system certification is an individual process."
Even if many of the components of Google Apps for Government were previously FISMA certified by the GAO, it doesn't mean the entire system -- which is what the government certifies -- meets the requirements, Retallack added.
The dustup over FISMA is fall-out from a lawsuit that Google filed last November against the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). In that suit, Google charged that the agency restricted competition by requiring bidders on a $59.3 million contract for cloud-based email and messaging services to use Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite-Federal (BPOS) system.
Google claimed that DOI officials told it and one of its resellers that its Google Apps for Government did not meet the agency's security requirements.
Google's confusion over what is certified and what isn't shows the company's inexperience in dealing with the federal government, said Retallack.
"Microsoft, like a lot of other federal contractors, has many, many years of experience with the federal government and contracts, and has a very large contingent dedicated to that," Retallack said. "What strikes me about Google is that their capabilities here may not be as complete as Microsoft's, and that got them into a little bit of trouble. They may have things to learn."
It's not uncommon for major contracts to be disputed, something Retallack knows from his time at Boeing.
"This is a tough business to be in," he said. "It's not unusual for IT projects to be protested, or at least discussed. And when there's lots of money involved, people are going to do all they can."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about it in government in Computerworld's IT in Government Topic Center.