If you were to devise a drinking game and needed a phrase that would keep participants knocking back their favorite beverage of choice, you couldn't go wrong with these two words: cloud computing. That phrase has been spoken billions of times over the last few years at tech conferences around the world. While it's true that the cloud has lots of potential to revolutionize IT, many system administrators still have reservations about putting vital corporate infrastructure in the cloud. 

There are two sides to every story, and such is the case with cloud adoption. Many companies and organizations the world over have embraced the cloud as an important part of their IT service portfolio, and DeTect Inc. is one of them.

DeTect is a small business that specializes in avian and weather radar technologies. In mid-2010, DeTect IT Manager Matt James managed the transition from a hosted POP e-mail provider to Google Apps for DeTect’s 80+ users, and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his experience with cloud computing in general and Google Apps in particular. Matt also joined an online roundtable I recently moderated on Office 365 and Google Apps, and he brought a welcome, real-world perspective about the benefits (and drawbacks) of cloud computing.

DeTect IT Manager Matt James
DeTect IT Manager Matt James

Gartner recently announced that Google made about $185 million in Google Apps revenue for the last 9 months ending on Sept. 30. Those aren't huge numbers when you consider the billions that Google rakes in from their core search business, but it proves that Google is gaining some traction in getting businesses to consider Google Apps as an alternative to competitive cloud and on-premise solutions.

Analyst reports and sales figures are one thing, but what was Google Apps like to deploy and support? To find out I asked Matt a few questions about his own move to Google Apps.

Jeff James: What email solution where you using before you switched to Google Apps? When did you switch to Google Apps?

Matt James: Before we switched to Google Apps, we were using Web.com's e-mail service. It is a very basic service with only POP3 access to mail accounts. We started our migration to Google Apps in July of 2010.

JJ: What are you favorite features of Google Apps?

MJ: Based on user feedback, the size of the mailbox (25GB) is probably the top feature. This allows users to keep all of their mail in once place which makes the second feature possible - searching capability across all those messages. Searching gmail is light years faster and more efficient than searching in Outlook. The third feature that our users have commented highly on is the built-in chat functionality - great for asking quick questions.

JJ: What are your least favorite features of Google Apps?

MJ: I would say that the number one complaint has to do with learning the "search instead of sort" philosophy that gmail uses. Some users have a very hard time finding their mail without doing a sort and, unless they use Outlook with Google Apps sync, there is no way to get this functionality. The second largest user gripe about Google Apps is actually a double edges blade of sorts. Because Google is constantly changing and improving their software and you always get the latest stuff, it is sometimes hard to keep up with all of the changes. There are Administrative settings that can slow this process down a bit, but you're still somewhat drug into the newer versions - like it or not. Lastly, from an administrative prospective and related to the storage feature above, currently there is no way to add more storage to an e-mail account in Google Apps.

JJ: Any advice for IT pros considering moving their mail on-premise into the cloud?

MJ: We started with a pilot group of 10 users. We setup dual delivery so these users got mail in both their web.com and Google Apps accounts. This allowed us to do a direct comparison between the two services. The only warning here is to make absolutely sure you understand DNS MX records and how mail routing works with your existing provider. We had to play some tricks with alias domains to get the dual delivery to continue to work once we switched our MX records to Google. Once our pilot program was done, we decided to move groups of users at a time. This proved to be painful as some people were on Google Apps and wanted to share documents, view calendars, and chat with users that were not yet migrated. I would suggest a "big bang" roll out once the pilot is completed.

JJ: Does Google Apps meet all the security and compliance needs that your company may have?

MJ: Because we're a private company, we're not held to the same regulations and compliance requirements of larger / public companies. However, we have been asked to come up to those levels of compliance because of the types of contracts we work on with the US and Foreign governments. Google Apps by itself does not provide these types of compliance. Google uses an add-on service called Postini for message archival, content filtering, encryption, etc. We will probably be moving to Postini's message archiving solution within the next year.

JJ: Other than Google mail, what other Google Apps do you use?

MJ: We use most of the Google Apps suite including calendar, docs, sites, video, and groups. We also use Google Apps Sync for Outlook and Google Cloud Connect for integration with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. We've also started using a product called Gantter Project (free) from the Google Apps marketplace for use as an alternative to Microsoft Project.

JJ: Any comments on how difficult Google Apps is to license?

MJ: Google apps is super easy to license. It's $50 per user per year. The Postini add-on is either $15 / user / year or $33 / user / year depending on if you want 1 or 10 years of message archiving respectively. IF you're looking into some of the Google Apps marketplace add-ons, they can get cumbersome to license but those aren't directly sold by Google.

 

JJ: Any concerns about uptime in the cloud?

MJ: After evaluating our situation and looking at our infrastructure, we concluded that the possibility of a local power outage or internet connection failure is more of a driving factor in our up-time than a cloud based service. In our experience with Google Apps there have been limited outages or service interruptions none of which have lasted for more than about 5 minutes.

JJ: Did you ever consider going with Microsoft Exchange?

MJ: We did consider it, but based on our infrastructure it was simply going to be too expensive. We also estimated that we would have had to hire additional IT staff to facilitate an Exchange deployment.

JJ: Have you looked at Office 365 at all?

MJ: We were not aware of Office 365 when we started our Google Apps deployment. We looked into BPOS but decided it did not offer the storage we required as well as being considerably more expensive.

JJ: Do you use any other cloud-based solutions in your office?

MJ: We use a hosted VoIP service for all locations. In combination with Google Apps, this literally allows us to do business anywhere we have a decent internet connection.

JJ: How many desktop and laptop clients do you manage? And what OS are you running on most of them? MJ:I am ultimately responsible for approximately 150 client and server nodes throughout our organization. The majority of these systems are running Windows 7 or XP. We do have a handful of Linux and Macintosh clients. We run Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2003 R2. I am also indirectly responsible for approximately 400 field deployed systems running a combination of Windows XP and Redhat Enterprise Linux.

JJ: What about compatibility? Office applications like Excel, Word, and PowerPoint are fully-featured products, and the Google Apps equivalents don’t have the same breadth of features. Has that been a problem for your users at all?

MJ: We use Google Docs as a starting point for collaboration on large documents like our manuals, technical interface documents, and the like. Once we have all of the content agreed upon, our technical writers take the Google Doc and put it into Word to do all of the "fancy" stuff. This has proven to be a great way to speed up the development of these documents as everyone can work on the document at the same time. For a large number of other business documents - there isn't really a need for all of those added features and functionality and users have been quite happy with Google Docs. We still use the Office suite - just not as heavily. One product that Google can't even touch is Microsoft Visio - we have not found any viable alternatives to this. We also still lean pretty heavily on MS Project. We have started using Gantter Project for internal project management but for dealing with prime and sub contractors - MS Project is still king.

I'd like to thank Matt for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions. Thanks Matt!

What are your thoughts on Google Apps and cloud computing? Let me know what you think by adding a comment to this blog post or starting up a conversation on Twitter.