Despite challenges Google apps gains many new business converts

After conquering the search world, Google is now pushing hard to be a major provider of business software, tackling longtime dominator Microsoft over productivity and collaboration apps.

But does this company, most famous for free consumer-oriented offerings like search and basic apps, have what it takes to be taken seriously by business? Can you really rely on Google Apps?

Ken Godskind thinks so. The chief strategy officer at AlertSite moved his company’s 45 employees to the Premier Edition of Google Apps in late 2008. He likes the fact that he gets not only e-mail but word processing, spreadsheets, a Web-based calendar, Web-based collaboration, Google Talk, and Google Video for $50 a year per user. That’s a third or less of what he would pay to get the same from an internal, Microsoft-based environment.

And Godskind is not alone. A recent IDC survey shows that Google Docs is “widely used” in 20 percent of companies. (Google Docs is the set of word processing, spreadsheet,  presentation, and calendar components of Google Apps.) And even some large organizations — the latest being the city of Los Angeles and its 30,000 users — are adopting Google Docs and the corporate version of Gmail. Chalk up yet more converts in Google’s crusade to make itself, not Microsoft, the default choice for everything from word processing and spreadsheets to e-mail.

So far, many of the early takers have been smaller businesses that didn’t need enterprise-level management and integration with other applications. But since the fall of 2008, when biotech giant Genentech became its first big-name enterprise customer, Google has rolled out features to lure other enterprises. These include client software to allow users to keep working while offline, Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook (to let Gmail users work through the familiar Microsoft e-mail client), and Google Apps Connector for BlackBerry Enterprise Server so that mobile users can access Google Apps on their smartphones.

More than 400 Google Apps resellers provide advanced help such as data migration, training, and configuration, while independent developers fill the gaps in Google’s enterprise offerings with tools to help manage directories, back up and restore data, and comply with regulations.

Google’s vision extends beyond the apps, into a new computing paradigm based on the cloud, in which apps might run on a netbook or smartphone powered by Google’s Android rather than on a PC running Windows. The apps and data will sit on Google’s servers, not in the customer’s datacenter. No more management headaches, no more hardware and software to buy — just blissful online collaboration and deep cost savings.

But not so fast. Users will have to learn a new interface and to share documents in the cloud rather than e-mail them back and forth. Someone has to migrate years of old e-mail and other data to the Google cloud. There are sometimes pesky issues linking Google Apps to legacy applications, mobile devices, and users who refuse to give up the familiar Microsoft Outlook e-mail client. Tech support isn’t always up to enterprise standards. Then there are concerns over data privacy, security, and regulatory compliance, especially for larger companies that must follow strict data management rules.

But don’t worry, says Google and its backers. With an R&D budget of more than $2 billion per quarter fueled by massive search advertising profits, Google will fix whatever’s not right — and probably sooner rather than later. That is, when it’s not busy reinventing the operating system (with its pending, free Chrome OS), taking over the smartphone OS space (with its free Android OS), and maybe killing off the GPS navigation business by bundling (again, free) GPS and mapping with Android.

To Google, all these technologies aren’t spaghetti thrown against the wall to see what sticks. They’re strategic bets in a multifront campaign to build a Web-based replacement for Windows and Office. And people are listening.

But is Google Apps delivering? InfoWorld decided to find out.

Google Apps pros: Cost and uptime

Resellers, customers, and analysts agree that the paid version of Google Apps delivers on its core promise of costing a third or less than a similar lineup of Microsoft products.

Because e-mail is a huge expense for large companies, it’s no surprise that Gmail is a popular draw. Upgrading from Microsoft Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2007 is often a trigger to considering cloud-based e-mail because it forces many customers to also buy new 64-bit servers and operating systems. For such reasons, Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler says that cloud-based e-mail (whether from Google or a rival) is almost always cheaper for companies with fewer than 15,000 users.

Although its uptime isn’t perfect (and its outages get big play), Google says it consistently meets its 99.9 percent uptime guarantee. It also quotes a Radicati Group study that found Gmail four times more reliable than Microsoft’s Exchange messaging server when considering only unplanned outages, and ten times more reliable when taking into account planned downtime for maintenance.

Google Apps maybes: Data security

The fit to business is less clear when it comes to data security, especially for big corporations. Data security in the cloud is an issue “enterprises are going to have to reckon with,” admits AlertSite’s Godskind. A prime example: In moving to Google Apps, the city of Los Angeles insisted on penalties from Google if any of its data was compromised. Many other customers aren’t worried, trusting that bigger (and presumably more tech-savvy) customers will hold Google’s feet to the fire on security.

Google says it has many customers in highly regulated industries such as health care. It also says its proprietary encoding of data, its dispersal of data among physical and logical files, all help keep customer information safe. As for regulated data, Google punts: “We recommend [companies] follow their regulations, and we don’t give specific advice on how to follow those,” a spokesman says carefully.

Rivals hint that Google’s storage architecture, in which different customers’ data may sit on the same array, pose a security threat. The question of where data sits is also important for organizations that must comply with geography-specific regulations, such as those protecting customer data in the European Union.

“We make sure we’re matching the regulations customers need,” says a Google spokesman, adding that administrators can control which enterprise data various users can see. Google also assures customers they own their data and will always have easy access to it, rather than using its custody of that data to lock a customer in the Google cloud.

E-mail is another regulatory challenge, but Allen Falcon, CEO of Google Apps reseller Horizon Info Services, says the Google’s Postini e-mail archiving and recovery service stores e-mail in the write-once, read-many format required by regulators, as well as provides the needed auditing capabilities. Google says it plans to extend the usage policies, rules, and parameters provided by Postini to the rest of its apps.

Google Apps cons: Tech support, limited capabilities, legacy integration

So what’s not to like? The quality of technical support, headaches around data migration, annoying shortcomings in function and performance, and the pain of changing familiar computing habits.

“There’s no one to really call if you’re having a problem,” says Greg Arnette, who as CTO of e-mail archiving vendor Sonian is both a Google Apps user and a competitor to Google’s Postini service. While phone support is included in Google Apps Premier Edition, “They do everything they can to direct you to the online forums,” he says. “You never reach a live person. Either they’re totally overwhelmed, or they don’t have a handle” on support needs.

Mauricio Freitas, a blogger at the tech publishing site Geekzone, abandoned Google Apps for Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite after it took Google 48 hours to contact him about problems with Google Sync for Mobile.

Google says it steers customers to its online support when it believes that will provide a faster and better answer. It also says the 24/7 phone support it offers in its paid version is aimed at administrators, and that it relies on resellers to provide phone support for users and to help companies with especially large or complex challenges using Google apps.

Then there are functional and performance issues. Ragy Thomas, CEO of Sprinklr, a Web marketing firm, is an enthusiastic user of Google apps such as Google Sites but admits its office productivity tools are “not for every company right now.” The word processor and spreadsheet lack some features found in their Microsoft counterparts, and sometimes seem sluggish over the Web, he says. He’s confident, though, that Google will solve these problems. (Google promises it will close the gap with Office in 2010.)

Another challenge is the integration between Google Apps and the legacy applications that are everywhere in large companies. Rajen Sheth, Google’s senior product manager for Google Apps, says Google and its partners are “stepping up” to that challenge. Google, for example, has developed a SAML-based API for single sign-on and directory synchronization. He also cited Ltech, among others, for providing “a secure data connector … between the Google datacenter and the customer’s datacenter.”

Google Apps: Nowhere to go but up? Google’s flood of new offerings help keep it in the news, serve as poster children for its vision of the computing future, and give it street cred, says AlertSite’s Godskind. “I’m a big believer in ‘ready, fire, aim.’ It increases the pace of innovation.”

But “ready, fire, aim” isn’t an easy concept for larger enterprises to accept, notes Sprinklr’s Thomas. That’s why “the very largest companies, those with 100,000 employees, are not looking at a wholesale move,” he says, instead using them in specific cases such as allowing employees to share documents with business partners. Still, Thomas insists the upper limit for Google’s market “is a glass ceiling and it will be broken.”

He and other early adopters believe it’s just a matter of time — between the economy and the rise of cloud-enabled technologies — until even the largest businesses bite the bullet, give up their antiquated PC-centric ways, and move to the cloud.

That’s what Google is betting on.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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