Corporate e-mail in the cloud: Google vs. Microsoft

Some large enterprises are seriously considering jumping from Exchange to Gmail, or already have. Here's why.

The calendar question

There's simplification and then there's oversimplification, says Chicago State's Dillon. After two years with Google Apps for Education, a free but less fully featured version of Google Apps, the institution is moving its administration and staff -- about 1,000 users -- onto Microsoft Exchange. Students will remain on Google Apps, she says, but administrators, who found the Google Apps group calendaring features "cumbersome and difficult to use," will make the transition. "We cannot achieve the productivity we need to have as an institution using Gmail," she says.

Jeff Keltner, business development manager at Google, defends his company's group-scheduling features. "We use this within Google... every day... for 20,000 users around the world," he says. In addition, Google is continually improving those features, he says, most recently with the release of the Smart Rescheduler, which helps users find available times and rooms for group meetings.

But Dillon says that's too little too late. "In our environment a lot of people didn't find [the calendaring function] easy to use, and therefore didn't use it," she says.

Brad Wright, vice president of communications technology at Jacobs Engineering Group, a professional technical services firm based in Pasadena, Calif., also ran into issues when about 200 staffers tested Google Apps last year. During the pilot, he had problems importing calendar data. And when data did import, some recurring calendar events came over as one-time meetings.

He also experienced problems with the free/busy calendar function. Some users couldn't access it. "Others, such as myself, had such a large amount of dynamic free/busy data that the replication object in Google that housed my free/busy data was frequently corrupted and not available to other Gmail users," he says.

Asked to comment, a Google spokesperson stated that "a properly configured environment with the Google calendar connectors should work smoothly." She also pointed out that Google recently introduced its Google Apps for Migration for Exchange tool.

"Google calendaring was not anywhere close to the Outlook/Exchange combination, and that really frustrated folks in the pilot," Wright says. By the end of the pilot, 25% of users said they loved Google Apps, about half didn't care either way, and 25% hated it, Wright says. His company is staying with Exchange, at least for now.

Temple University moved most of its users to Gmail but left its calendar-heavy users on Exchange, says Sheri Stahler, associate vice president for computer services. "Those are mostly administrators," who represent about 1,200 of the Philadelphia university's more than 100,000 user accounts, the rest of which transitioned to Gmail. "Although Google could do group scheduling it wasn't as easy or clean," she says.

Patel didn't have problems with calendaring, but he says managing expectations is critical -- and so is training. In a transition from Exchange to Google Apps, he recommends one-on-one hands-on training with executives and their staffs. "They tend to be our toughest customers," he says, because they're very heavy users of e-mail and calendaring -- and they don't always have time to attend group training classes. In addition to classroom training, Sanmina-SCI also offered self-service training and 24/7 help desk support.

Sticking points

Group calendars weren't the only roadblock for Wright. He says Google's tools for integrating with Exchange and Active Directory weren't fully mature during the pilot last summer. "They were very touchy and created some really ugly complexities that damped the spirits of some of the users," he says. (Patel, who also integrated with Active Directory, says Sanmina-SCI's transition went fine.)

But the bigger issue -- the one that stopped the plan to migrate Jacobs' 35,000 Outlook users in its tracks -- was that the move wouldn't have saved any money. In fact, he says, migrating probably would have cost several million dollars more over a three- or four-year period. "We are far more cost effective at managing our own infrastructure than what Google could bring to the table... when focused purely on e-mail and calendaring. That surprised us," he says. It shouldn't have; Jacobs has an engineering culture that is laser-focused on managing infrastructure as efficiently as possible. "We probably lead in that area," he admits. Nonetheless, he suggests that every organization do its own detailed cost analysis.

Wright plans to conduct a second pilot test that will focus on collaboration and the full suite of Google Apps, and he thinks that may yield a different result, particularly because the company has yet to broadly embrace tools for document sharing and group collaboration. "We can do that with Microsoft. It's just more expensive," he says. Google Apps, he notes, could be "an opportunistic play to change the habits and user environment of the company."

Another potential sticking point is the user interface. "The challenge Google faces is really about Outlook," the preferred e-mail client for many business users, says Schadler. "It's not about e-mail."

While Gmail will work with the Outlook client, it doesn't support all of the features Outlook offers with Exchange, such as task lists or drag-and-drop, for example. Likewise, Outlook doesn't provide access to the full range of unique features within Gmail, such as applying labels to messages and integration with other documents in the Google Apps suite. That's why Patel decided to bite the bullet and transition users to a browser, instead of a dedicated client to access Gmail, right away. That has taken some getting used to, but for the most part it's working out quite well, he says.

Rentokil Initial, a business services company based in Gatwick, England, has transitioned approximately 10,000 e-mail users to Google Apps from a mix of systems, including Exchange. The Google interface is a different paradigm, says Martyn Howe, director of IT services, but he doesn't think that's a deal-breaker for users. "Once you get used to it, it has many advantages over the systems we were using," he says.

Among the pluses to Gmail, Howe says, is that "relying less on folders and more on search means you can spend less time trying to organize your e-mails in folders, knowing you can always find that e-mail" via Google's search tools. Another is that using and sharing calendars "has proven to be remarkably powerful and helps you manage your schedule with colleagues, family and friends, beyond a corporate world." Finally, Google Apps works with mobile technology in a way that "has been difficult to achieve with a closed internal e-mail system," he says, specifically noting how well the apps work with devices based on Google's Android operating system.

Classic cloud worries

In addition to responding to comparisons of the features in Google Apps and those in Outlook and Exchange, Google has had to allay general fears about the security, availability, uptime and privacy of e-mail in the cloud.

Most organizations interviewed for this story that have adopted Google Apps say security is as good or better than what they had previously with on-premises e-mail. "Frankly, Google has a lot more resources than we do when it comes to security," Patel says. "We have confidence that they're going to be able to manage that."

Patel has a single sign-on setup, taking advantage of integration capabilities between Sanmina-SCI's existing Active Directory infrastructure and Google Apps. Google also offers encryption for data in transit and at rest. Files are chopped up into pieces, encrypted and distributed across many storage devices.

"Unless you have all of the pieces and the tools to unencrypt them, you can't read anything. That's one of the things that impressed us," says Kevin Crawford, assistant general manager for the Los Angeles city government, which recently completed a 2,500-user pilot of Google Apps for Business. The municipality expects to save $5.5 million over five years by migrating all of its 30,000 users from Novell Inc.'s GroupWise to Google Apps. "Our No. 1 consideration was cost," he says.

But Chicago State's Dillon remains skeptical. "POP mail is not as secure as if you were using your own servers inside your own firewall, inside of your LDAP," she says. It's not that Gmail is unsafe, she says, but it's less secure than what she feels she can achieve by controlling everything in-house.

Tags emailGoogleCloud

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Robert L. Mitchell

Computerworld (US)

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