CIOs Weigh Google's Enterprise Communication Suite

There's no simple answer for CIOs who wonder if the suite is a good fit

The company: Google

Headquarters: Mountain View, Calif.

Employees: 20,621

2009 Revenue: $23.6 billion

CEO: Eric Schmidt

What They Do: Google gets most of its revenue from search advertising, but it has high aspirations for its Enterprise division and its flagship product, Apps Premier. The hosted collaboration and communication suite includes applications for e-mail, calendar, office productivity, intranet, video sharing and discussion forums.

The Pitch

Google Apps Premier offers enterprises cloud-based messaging and collaboration software intended to cost less and to be simpler to deploy and manage than on-premise systems. Unlike the free Standard edition, Premier offers IT management tools to support enterprise software integration, user provisioning and migration among its capabilities.

At first, CIOs didn't bite, but during the past three years, Google has steadily strengthened Premier's features and security. Today, customers include companies as diverse as Genentech and Fairchild Semiconductor, with thousands of users.

Rajen Sheth, a Google Apps senior product manager, says Gmail has been Premier's main attraction, but now Google is beefing up its Docs office productivity suite to better compete with Microsoft Office. "It's an area we're ready to delve into a lot more deeply now," Sheth says. "Going forward, we'll be able to offer them a choice for office productivity."

The catch

IBM and Microsoft are moving fast to tweak their Lotus Notes and Exchange products--as well as release new ones--to provide the cost savings and management benefits of hosted suites like Google Apps.

Meanwhile, end users may resist the switch from familiar applications. The Schumacher Group, a healthcare company, bought 2,000 Premier seats to provide e-mail for doctors who are independent contractors. But full-time employees are sticking with Exchange, in part to avoid the change-management process, says CIO Douglas Menefee.

The city of Orlando, Fla., trained 3,000 users on Premier Gmail, calendar and contacts. But Google Docs will wait until PCs deployed two years ago with Microsoft Office 2007 are no longer usable, CIO Conrad Cross says.

The usual concerns about cloud computing--whether storing data off-premise is secure, and worries about bugs, outages and performance issues over which IT departments have no control--also apply.

What's more, say CIOs, Google has much to learn about cultivating relationships with enterprise customers. Omnetic, the Schumacher Group's Premier reseller and integrator, enjoys good communication with enterprise engineers at Google, and Menefee has sales contacts there. "But I don't feel I have solid communications with Google from the support and engineering perspectives," he says.

The score

Nucleus Research analyst Rebecca Wettemann says Google has moved quickly in the past year to make Apps Premier a viable choice for CIOs. "Google has taken important steps in terms of usability, performance, reliability and, most important, providing guidance to enterprises on how to deploy these tools effectively," she says.

However, there's no simple answer for CIOs who wonder if the suite is a good fit for their companies. "You have to know what the cost of providing the service internally is," Cross says. "Otherwise, you won't know what your savings will be and why it would be to your advantage to adopt Apps."

Cross also warns that while ditching an on-premise system for Apps reduces the IT staff's internal server-maintenance work, it doesn't mean IT executives can abdicate their management roles. You still have to make sure Google meets its obligations, he says.

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