Jason Deli chain ditches open source e-mail for the Google cloud

Google Apps won over a happy open source e-mail user with advanced collaboration features

Kevin Verde, CIO of the nationwide chain of restaurants, Jason's Deli, loves open source. He's even a fan of the open source e-mail platform he recently yanked out in favor of cloud-based Google Apps. But with 1,800 e-mail users to support among the organization's 228 retail locations and seven corporate offices, he had a choice to make: save a little bit of money or save a lot of time. He chose to save time.

Cloud Computing

And so today I bring you an unusual story -- one in which the cloud comes out on top of open source because ...

1) while cloud services may cost more than FOSS, the difference is far smaller than it is between open source and proprietary software. The cloud saves money on infrastructure and administration costs, and for the extra cost you can get worthwhile features that you wouldn't have developed on your own.

2) it's hard for the CIO to prioritize customization of basic back office applications like e-mail. Those projects will always lose out over bet-your-business apps -- so there may be little to be gained by going with an open source product over a cloud version for certain apps.

The above conclusions were why Verde moved from the open source Liferay e-mail product the company had been using for about six years to Google Apps. Verde made it clear he has nothing but praise for Liferay. Jason's Deli didn't move away because of any problem with it. The company was using an outdated version so before embarking on a major upgrade, the IT team looked around -- even (briefly) considering moving to the latest version of Microsoft Exchange which is doing interesting things around collaboration with SharePoint, Verde said. They settled on Google Apps.

"If you want really good control and you want the ability to really customize, you can’t beat open source for that. For commodity functions, like e-mail, to invest takes significant resources. Google can do it at a price that makes it attractive," says Verde.

He sees Google Apps as an evolution to e-mailing documents with attachments. "If you look at Microsoft Outlook today, it's not much different than it was 10 years ago. Google engineers are thinking of ways to make e-mail more efficient. Google has this thing called App Tuesday, a play on whole Patch Tuesday, but still it shows they have a platform that grows. They are doing really innovative things with collaboration," he says.

He offers as an example the Google Apps spreadsheet. Multiple users can work with the spreadsheet in realtime and can populate the spreadsheet with information gathered from a Google search or other online data sources. "Users can do a look-up in a spreadsheet for search terms, put in stock quotes, states, populations for cities. It makes a spreadsheet connect to a load of information – as opposed to being a silo on a desktop," he says.

Verde hired help to migrate from the on-premises e-mail system to Google Apps in the form of a company called Cloud Sherpas. With Cloud Sherpas assistance, Jason's Deli moved 600GB of e-mail, and 14,000 documents to Google Apps. They also used some custom tools from Cloud Sherpas to "fill in the gaps" of Google's administration panel, Verde says. The basic admin panel offers a good set of basic functions and an API so users can roll their own management widgets.

All in all, a cost analysis showed that moving to Google Apps would cost marginally more than sticking with the open source e-mail platform but a small increase per seat was worth it, Verde says. "Liferay is a really good product. The problem was we didn’t have the resources to develop to keeping it better over time." Verde instead has his developers working on the company's POS systems and other apps that are more critical to business than e-mail.

The moral of the story is that vanilla back office applications may be ideally more suited for the cloud even if open source options exist. Having read this case study, do you agree?

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.