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.

City of Angeles moves to Google Apps

Interesting!

Google Apps will also help conserve resources in the city’s Information & Technology Agency (ITA), which is responsible for researching, testing & implementing new technologies in ways that make Los Angeles a better place to live, work and play. Because the email and other applications are hosted and maintained by Google, ITA employees who previously were responsible for maintaining our email system can be freed up to work on projects that are central to making the city run.

By ITA estimates, Google Apps will save the city of Los Angeles millions of dollars by allowing us to shift resources currently dedicated to email to other purposes. For example, moving to Google will free up nearly 100 servers that were used for our existing email system, which will lower our electricity bills by almost $750,000 over five years. In short, this decision helps us to get the most out of the city’s IT budget.

The decision to move to Google Apps was not taken lightly. The city issued a request for proposals and received 15 proposals, which were evaluated by city officials. The top four proposals were invited to give oral presentations, with CSC’s proposal for Google Apps receiving the highest marks. This decision was reviewed and discussed by the Los Angeles City Council which, after a healthy debate, voted unanimously to move forward with Google Apps.

Here’s a video for more:

Telegraph switches to Google Apps

Been busy at WorkCampUK so haven’t been following my feeds that closely, but my eye was caught by a post written by Shane Richmond, Communities Editor of the Telegraph’s web presence:

I’ve been testing Google Apps within the Telegraph for the last few months so I’m delighted that we’re now switching over entirely. The speed, accessibility and flexibility of Google Mail, Google Calendar and Google Docs make them much better to work with than the programs we used before.

Interesting news. After all, if an august institution like the Telegraph can make such a move, why not any other organisation?

I do have a few issues with the Google Apps offering though. For a start, the version of iGoogle that comes as standard is a seriously crippled version which, amongst other things, only lets you have one page of stuff. Also, sharing forms using Google Spreadsheets doesn’t work for people without an account on the Google Apps domain. It also doesn’t make sense to me that Google Reader isn’t a part of the package too.

But just in terms of email, as someone who has used various versions of Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, Lotus Notes and other enterprise email systems, Gmail is better than any.

OurPress: websites for the rest of us

OurPress

OurPress is a project I have been working on for aaaages, which stalled quite badly for a while. Essentially, the idea emerged in a discussion with Nick Booth in the comments of a blog post of his. We were talking about the paucity of options available to community groups to easily create open, social websites. At first I thought of Drupal, but soon moved on from there.
I had the idea of setting something up with the multi-user version of WordPress, called WordPressµ, which is what is used to run WordPress.com. Sites could be created either as blogs, or as static sites using WordPress pages. Help and guidance would be provided in getting stuff up and running, and customisation of templates would be possible, with the results being shared among the rest of the users too. I gave the idea the name OurPress, and was shocked to find the .org was still available. I snaffled it right away, as well as a few of the .whatever variants.

Then the project pretty much stalled, for two reasons. One, I forgot about it (probably because of Facebook or Twitter or something equally shiny); and two because I couldn’t find anywhere decent to host it. The trouble was that WordPressµ demands that you have something called ‘wildcard DNS’ to be able to create blogs at addresses like myblog.ourpress.org (for example). The other option is to have them at ourpress.org/myblog but problems can be created with static pages having the same name as blogs and the whole thing getting confused.

However, I recently returned to looking at the project, after a chat with Shane McCracken, and in my search for a host, I hit upon gold, or rather orange, in the form of A Small Orange. ASO are a bunch of cool guys in the US who happily host pretty much anything. They were quite happy to set up the wildcard DNS for me and when I asked if I could integrate with Google Apps, someone went ahead and amended all my MX records for me! Ace stuff!

Here’s the deal with the Google Apps: I get to have 200 accounts for free, so I can pretty much offer everyone who has an OurPress blog a free email account which will be blogname@ourpress.org. When I create the email account I will also setup an OurPress branded iGoogle page which will track web responses to the blog in question, so people have that important element set up even if they haven’t heard of RSS themselves before. Also, using Sites, I will give them access to a tonne of documentation about using the OurPress platform and blogging, social media etc.

Essentially, OurPress will be a completely contained and functional online platform to run community websites. And it’ll be free.

So who might want to use OurPress?

  • Community groups, whether based around a club or a village without any resources to put into developing a website
  • Individuals who want to start a site to create a community online
  • People who want to develop a project to help communities or civic life in general
  • Individuals who want to blog about their work within the community
  • Small charitable or not-for-profit organisations or projects that don’t want to invest in their own domain, hosting etc just yet
  • Local politicians, perhaps

The advantages of OurPress over, say, WordPress.com include:

  • Support in setup and running from me and anyone else who fancies getting involved (hint, hint)
  • The Google Apps integration
  • Folk will know that it is a ‘safe’ platform with no content hosted that will possibly reflect badly on them/their organisation
  • The creation of a community around all those on the platform
  • No adverts anywhere (and there are ads on WordPress.com, folks)

So where am I up to? I’ve installed WordPressµ and that’s about it. I need to get a look ‘n’ feel sorted for the homepage and arrange how the sign-up process will work for new blogs, but other than that, I am more or less there. Any comments or suggestions gratefully received!

What Google Apps Does

Google Apps
I’ve written a couple of posts about Google Sites over the last couple of days, and in summary: I really like it. I have spotted a few posts about complaining that this isn’t a service that’s available to those with standard Google accounts. That’s because it’s a part of the Google Apps (for your domain) service, which provides a bunch of Google’s systems for you to use under your own label and domain, with users limited to those you set up on the system.

What’s remarkable about Google Apps is that it’s free for up to 200 (count ’em!) users. Given the range of services now provided (Sites is an important addition), this presents a way for a new organisation to run their entire back office systems online, or within the cloud as the current popular phrase has it, for free. No need to invest in the necessary technology to run email and web servers, networked drives, groupware systems like calendars or intranets. Not only does it cost nothing (except for the registration of a domain name) but it also provides other advantages – because it’s in the cloud, the folk in your organisation can be working anywhere in the world.

You can even set up access to the services to use easily understandable domains, so email is accessed at mail.domain.com, calendars at calendar.domain.com etc. The only issue is around how you present the web content for your organisation – but more on that later.

To show just how good this actually is, I’ll give a brief run through of what you get for nothing.

1. Gmail

Your very own branded version of Gmail, with 6.5gb of mailspace for every one of your potential users. It runs exactly as the normal Gmail does, with filters, labels, threaded conversations etc. Gmail is the best web interface there is, and you can have it for yourself.

2. Google Docs

Create presentations, word processed documents and spreadsheets using a web based interface. You could see this as the equivalent of the network drive on a traditional setup. Only with this solution, you can share and collaborate on documents with your colleagues without having to email them round. You can instantly make any document created within your domain viewable or editable by other account holders, as well as invite in people from the outside.

3. Start Page

This is the Google Apps take on iGoogle. Your own branded version of the personalised start page. You can make this more interesting though by setting what one of the columns features for all users on the domain. This way you can ensure that vital stuff appears on everyone’s page, whilst they still have the option to personalise the majority of the content presented.

4. Google Calendar

Shared calendars across the domain, using one of the best online systems there are. Calendars can be shared across the domain, and again it can be branded with your own logo.

5. Google Talk

This is present in the Mail interface, as with traditional Gmail, but also can use the downloaded client software. A great way to communicate internally without worries as to which instant messaging platform others are using, and you can open it up to the outside world if you choose.

6. Page Creator

This is the only really piss-poor feature to Google Apps, and following the launch of Sites, it seems to be disappearing from view. It’s a simple way to produce pretty useless web pages. It certainly isn’t good enough to produce any kind of website for an organisation. You’re far better off delving into the world of DNS records and pointing web traffic to WordPress.com or something like that.

7. Sites

The really exciting bit, Sites is JotSpot reborn and Googlified. Not the perfect wiki, but the perfect introduction to them, and this – Gmail apart – is the real convincing argument for using Google Apps. When you consider how much stuff like Micrsoft’s Sharepoint costs, it’s unbelievable that Google is giving this thing away for free. It’s an intranet on steroids.

Google Apps rocks, and it provides pretty much everything a startup organisation might need. Work in a grown up, distributed, online way – for free.