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.

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.

Jacobs Engineering, which needs to protect sensitive client data, reviewed Google's security last year. "At that point, 80% of our concerns were addressed by Google, but there were still those 20% where we said 'Hmm, I just don't know about that,'" Wright says. "You just don't have visibility into the cloud."

Temple University's chief information security officer and the university counsel conducted an extensive review of Google Apps' security -- and reached a different conclusion. "They came back and said their security is as good as or better than ours," says Stahler. Rentokil's Howe came to a similar conclusion. "We believe it has improved our overall security in a significant way," he says.

A related security issue for Jacobs Engineering revolves around where its data is stored. "We have some clients who are sensitive to geographic storage issues -- where is my data, per country," Wright says. Google says it can't guarantee that a given set of data stored by Google Apps will be maintained within the borders of a specific country.

Availability and uptime

With regard to availability and uptime, Google, like other cloud providers, does offer a service level agreement that guarantees "three nines" availability -- in other words, it's up 99.9% of the time. One way Google achieves that is by writing data simultaneously to multiple servers within its data center and synchronously copying that data to a second data center. If the service goes offline, however, Google's liability is limited to refunding part of the subscription fee. Business losses as a result of downtime aren't part of the deal.

Google has had its share of outages in the past year, but that doesn't seem to have dissuaded users of Google Apps for Business so far. Temple's Stahler recalls an outage in September that lasted a couple of hours. Her users noticed the problem right away, but she says her team wasn't under fire because everyone realized that it was Google's problem. "Before, we would have been scrambling and would have had to drop everything," she says. But with Gmail, people simply accepted it. "They realized that Google had thousands of people working on it and that this was unusual."

Wright says downtime hasn't gone unnoticed, but the small amount of it hasn't been a big concern for him. While e-mail is mission-critical, it's doesn't require extremely high availability. "Our environment doesn't demand five nines," he says.

The city of Los Angeles had many privacy concerns as it was considering going with Gmail, says Randi Levin, general manager and chief technology officer. But Google's approach of breaking apart data and encrypting the pieces helps to allay fears of unauthorized access. As to what Google knows about individual users, city assistant general manager Crawford says he's satisfied with Google's controls. "Google doesn't have the right to read the data ever, unless we give them that right by request," he says. In addition, he says, "We can audit to see who's touched our stuff."

Proceed with due diligence

Overall, user acceptance testing for the city of Los Angeles's pilot, which ended April 12, has been very positive, Crawford says, but he cautions that the transition isn't without its share of challenges. "I'm not going to tell you that everyone loves the product and that we're ready to make this leap. We need to brush off a couple of rough edges," he says. But he has no qualms about pushing e-mail into the cloud. "If someone else can do it cheaper I'd rather give that to them and use my staff to solve other problems."

For Rentokil, successful deployment was more about identifying and mitigating risk and managing business expectations. "If you decide to change, run it as a business change project, not an IT project," Howe says.

Jacobs Engineering's Wright doesn't discount a move to Google Apps in the future, but he advises other IT managers to carefully examine the integrations required to make internal and external environments work together before making any commitments. "I think it's viable," he says, "but only if you go into it with your eyes wide open."

Robert L. Mitchell writes technology-focused features for Computerworld. You can follow Rob on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rmitch, send him e-mail at rmitchell@computerworld.com or subscribe to his RSS feed.

Freelancer John Brandon contributed to this story.

This story, "Corporate e-mail in the cloud: Google vs. Microsoft" was originally published by Computerworld.

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