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.

E-mail is the third rail of enterprise IT operations. You can mess up elsewhere, but bring down people's e-mail and you'll start getting irate calls literally in seconds.

Manesh Patel knows those risks well, but that didn't stop the senior vice president and CIO at Sanmina-SCI Corp. from stepping off the Microsoft Outlook/Exchange platform and moving the company's 16,000 users into Google's cloud -- thereby running the risk of interrupting users' e-mail, even if just temporarily, in the process. The cost savings were simply too good to pass up.

Two years ago, the San Jose-based contract manufacturer relied on stable, up-to-date versions of Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook and Exchange Server to handle its e-mail needs. Then, after a lengthy analysis and pilot, Sanmina-SCI shut down its 100 Exchange servers, traded Outlook for a browser as the primary e-mail client and migrated all of its e-mail users worldwide onto Google Apps for Business suite. This cloud-based service now delivers Google Inc.'s Gmail e-mail offering, plus calendaring and contact management services to Sanmina-SCI's workers.

The company completed the project last December.

Why fix something that wasn't broken? "A lot of people thought I was crazy," Patel admits, but the operational cost savings were just too big to ignore. By moving from an on-premises Exchange architecture to Google Apps for Business Premier Edition, Patel cut costs by more than $1.9 million a year.

Now that its suite of tools has established a foothold among consumers, educational institutions and small businesses, Google is focusing on large businesses -- and it's targeting Exchange users in particular. Google claims to have 1.75 million business user accounts. There's no data available on how many of those customers, if any, switched to Google Apps from Exchange, but the general belief is that most probably are small and midsize business users who may not have come from an Exchange environment.

To attract even larger business accounts, Google has received SAS 70 Type II certification and now offers -- either directly or through partners -- a range of enterprise-friendly options, including tools for automating Exchange migration, integration with LDAP and Active Directory, and add-ons such as support for BlackBerry users and Postini services for content filtering and message archiving.

Another feature, one recently incorporated from the company's testing lab, allows for delegation, where an executive can give an administrator control over his messages, much like Exchange already offers.

There are a few differences between Gmail for Business and Exchange's features, however. For example, voice and video chat are integrated into the mail view. Google's core suite also promises easy ad-hoc collaboration between its Gmail, Docs, Calendar, Groups, Sites and Video applications.

"There's lots more to come in 2010," says Rajen Sheth, senior product manager for Google Apps. "We're hardening the services by increasing reliability from 99.9% to 99.99% availability, and providing more tools for administrators to manage their information in the cloud. We're making the platform more flexible, and helping third parties build powerful applications on top of our own."

Most large businesses have yet to take e-mail into the cloud, but interest is rising, says Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. The nascent trend has the full attention of Microsoft, which has been rapidly evolving its own service, Exchange Online. [See related story.]

The Google proposition

Moving from an on-premises model to a cloud-based model presents its own concerns; moving at the same time to a new e-mail platform with an entirely different user interface and feature set is an even bigger step. Still, from Patel's perspective, it made good sense to migrate from an enterprise-class on-premises e-mail system like Exchange onto the cloud-based Gmail architecture, despite Gmail's roots as a free, consumer-based application.

Not only does Google Apps for Business cost less than an on-premises Exchange Server system, but it has a "high level of functionality -- 90% to 95% of what we were looking for," Patel says.

Generally speaking, moving to the cloud relieves IT of the responsibility of maintaining and operating an e-mail infrastructure. And it allows for more rapid innovation by developers, who can roll out new features as soon as they're ready. Users don't have to wait for the next service pack to see updates and they don't have to wait three years for major new features to appear in the next release. "When you look at the pace of innovation, this is where the cloud really starts to shine," says Forrester's Schadler.

But some IT executives who have explored using Google Apps say the cost savings can disappear if you run an extremely efficient on-premises Exchange environment. Others point out that cost isn't everything.

"It's a huge effort to ask people to learn something different -- even if it's for a better price point," says Ce Cole Dillon, CIO at Chicago State University, which recently moved everyone to Google Apps but then decided to move some staffers back onto Exchange. Finally, some users report that certain features in Google Apps aren't as sophisticated as those offered in Outlook and Exchange, particularly when it comes to calendaring -- an assertion that Google vigorously disputes.

A quick rollout

Patel succeeded with the transition by getting executive buy-in early and doing the rollout very quickly, over a 90-day period, rather than going through a prolonged migration process. He did, however, face some resistance to change. The Gmail interface, for example, organizes messages with tags instead of folders, and while accessing Gmail using a browser as the local client software worked better than Outlook for some tasks, it wasn't nearly as robust for others, such as dragging and dropping. He expects those differences to go away in the next 12 months as browsers begin to support new features in the emerging HTML 5 specification.

Patel sold the project by touting the potential cost savings and the benefits of moving from a fixed cost infrastructure to a variable cost service. "The financial guys loved that," he says.

But he also had other motives. One was to tap into the flexibility and continuous innovation that Google's cloud-based model offers. The other was to develop a "culture of collaboration" that would support ad-hoc, informal teams of customers and business partners. Google Apps, with an array of services ranging from Gmail to Google Docs, was well suited to the task, Patel says.

Automotive parts supplier Valeo Inc. is about one-third of the way through moving 30,000 users to Google Apps for Business, from IBM's Lotus Notes. CIO Francois Blanc says his team considered offerings from IBM, Microsoft and Google before making final decision. "In the cloud area, I see a leader and a follower, and the leader is Google," he says.

Blanc readily admits that Exchange, which he also considered to replace Notes, offers more sophisticated features in some respects -- but that's why he chose Google Apps. His users found many features in Notes "overly complicated and so didn't use them much." This time, he says, "we chose simplicity." But users do miss some features, such as the ability to make sure that an assistant who has access to an executive's in-box can't read the executive's confidential messages. "It was a small feature, but appreciated," he says.

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.

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