Moving to Google Apps…and surviving!

Dave says: Paul is a director of Learning Pool, and thus my boss. When he offers to contribute a post to this blog, I don’t have to say yes, but it kind of makes sense to do so. As well as being someone who knows how to run a great business, Paul also has an understanding of big IT that I simply don’t, thus he is much better placed to write about this than me!

Everyone knows that Learning Pool is all about collaboration, sharing and saving money.

Over the last three years it has also been all about growing a busy and successful business too.

While most of us at #teamlovely just want to meet customers, sell business and do interesting projects, someone has to make sure the lights stay on and that our growing team can continue to work efficiently, no matter where they were.

A few months ago I realised that at least some of this responsibility was mine. I was sitting in an airport (can’t remember which one) unable to connect to our exchange server.Frustrated, I called our tech team and asked them what was up. They fixed the immediate issue but reminded me that the server we were using was

  1. old;
  2. underspecified;
  3. overworked.

Some joviality along the lines of ‘it should see my diary and see what overworked really is!’ later, I received a quote to replace our internal systems with the latest that Microsoft and Dell had to offer.

The response left me running straight into the arms of Google!

We implemented Google Apps in around five weeks and are using the service for email and documents. In the next few weeks we’ll also be moving to Google Sites, from Sharepoint, having trialled this extensively and successfully.

While the project was pretty straightforward, there were a few things to consider that we would have thought should be just easy:

  • How do you set up a LAN without an expensive piece of Microsoft kit and associated licencing? – Google have no good ideas about this so we’ve gone with a standard Windows Server workgroup (much to the displeasure of @ianmoran!);
  • How do you deploy updates to each PC? – answer is that you don’t so you’re expecting all your users to be diligent about keeping their kit up to date;
  • What about all that historical data? – there are a number of solutions for getting archived email data into the Google cloud. We found a real restriction with our upload speed which made this process a pain we could have done without.

And so to Google Apps…

The Good

  • Excellent support. The guys at Google listened to what we wanted to achieve and then in a very matter of face way did it;
  • You can save money. The total cost of ownership of a Google based approach is much lower than a traditional solution. We’ve spent around £6,000 on hardware and licenses. The alternative was a £35,000 project. While we will need to pay an annual subscription to Google, having to pay out less cash has been very welcome;
  • Collaboration – Google docs just works. Several people can collaborate on a document across the net in real time;
  • Google works offline – we didn’t really expect it to, but it does!
  • No more Sharepoint – while I’m sure Sharepoint is a valuable and well built tool, it became the subject of intense hatred at Learning Pool over the last few years. I guess we didn’t invest enough in the initial set up and training. Although my experience is that Google Sites is far better in terms of its ability to enable collaboration.

The Bad

  • Google is a work in progress. I can pretty much guarantee that if you see something you don’t like, the answer from Google will be “we’re fixing that”. On the one hand that makes me feel better about the approach we take at Learning Pool – I have no doubt some of our customers feel the same frustration. At least we know they are working on it I guess;
  • Collaboration requires a Google account – I think this will be a seriously limiting factor in the long run, particularly as we work with organisations who are mainly public sector;
  • We still use Outlook – much and all as we would love to get rid of this, we’re reliant on Outlook for integration with our CRM – something we just can’t live without. No doubt though that Google mail works best in the browser;
  • Managing PCs on our ‘network’ is now pretty difficult – over time this could become a real overhead but we’re working on it as best we can for now;
  • Google Spreadsheets – in my opinion this just doesn’t work right now – the functionality isn’t rich enough and its routinely too slow to use and so there’s no way we can leave Excel behind just yet;
  • Google sites don’t really support hierarchy – this means that all your sites exist at the same level and you need to stitch it together with some html yourself;
  • Search on Google sites isn’t security trimmed. If a user searches all sites they’ll get documents returned that they don’t have permission to. We did have a bit of a chuckle at how Google have mucked up the search function – they are working on it of course (release due in a few weeks!)

On the whole then I’d recommend Google Apps as a way forward for providing groupware for a small to medium sized enterprise like Learning Pool. We like the idea of software as a service and five weeks into the project, most things work just as well as before and some things work a lot better indeed.

Nice work Google (and the Learning Pool and Konnexion teams too of course!). Kenny, our Head of Tech, has written two posts covering the operational side of the big switch over on the LP blog.

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.

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