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Email in the Cloud: A Google Apps Case Study

Email in the Cloud: A Google Apps Case Study

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This post was written by Tierney Smith, community manager of TechSoup Canada.

Are you frustrated with your current email system, or find it’s costing too much to maintain? Thinking of moving some stuff to the cloud but not sure where to start? Interested in Google Apps but not sure how it would fit in your organization?

Switching to a new system is always a big step, so I got in touch with the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) who have been using Google Apps for three years. Google Apps is a cloud system that can manage your organization's email, calendar, documents and sites. I talked with Doug Bastien, OCASI's Online Capacity Development Facilitator, and Dave Montague, IT Manager, to find out what prompted them to switch to Google Apps and what their experience has been.

Why Did OCASI Move to Google Apps?

OCASI has about 30 staff in their Toronto office, and before Google Apps they were using a hosted email solution. Each staff member was downloading her email to Microsoft Outlook on her computer. Staff could also access their email on the web; however, the interface wasn't great and this feature was rarely used. IT staff set up an automatic backup of each employee's Outlook file to their server every night, to ensure that nothing was lost. Since each file was quite large, a lot of space was required to store it all.

The main source of frustration with this system for the IT staff was that the backup often failed for unknown reasons. This meant that each time this happened they had to spend significant time debugging this problem — time that would be better spent on other tasks. Eventually it became clear that a new solution was needed.

Google Mail, offered as part of Google Apps, was the clear contender — it was free (at the time it was free for organizations up to 50 staff, now it's limited to 10)* and already well established. Since Google Mail is in the cloud, it takes away the need for an on-site backup and makes it easy for staff to access their email no matter where they are.

Were There Any Security Concerns with Moving to the Cloud?

While OCASI is certainly aware of the risks that exist when moving to the cloud, they realized that in their case the advantages far outweighed the risks. Having a reliable backup of their emails was extremely important, and in the cloud the risk of losing their data is much lower than when it was on their server. Having experience with running their own servers, OCASI also realized that the uptime and security that Google could provide was far better than what they could get elsewhere. Combined with the knowledge that their data wasn't very sensitive, this made the cloud the better choice from a security perspective.

How Well Has Google Apps Been Adopted by Staff?

By far, the most popular part of Google Apps at OCASI is Google Mail, which staff use to send, receive and manage their email. Since many people already use webmail tools such as Gmail and Hotmail for personal email accounts, the transition to Google Mail (which looks the same as a personal Gmail account inbox) was fairly smooth. For the few staff who do prefer getting email in Microsoft Outlook, OCASI has set it up so their Google Mail comes directly to their Outlook — a great way to move to a new system while still accommodating everyone's preferences.

While the main motivator of migrating to Google Apps was for email, Google Apps does come with other tools for free which some staff take advantage of as well. Google Chat is quite popular, which allows staff to send instant messages to each other. Many staff also take advantage of Google Calendar to manage their personal calendars. A calendar has been set up for meeting rooms, so anyone can easily tell if a meeting room is booked or not. Google Docs and Google Sites are also used by some groups and not others, depending on the familiarity with these applications and individual preferences. None of these tools are universally adopted by the organization, but there was no sense that this caused any problems — it seems to work fine to let everyone use what’s most comfortable to them.

What Issues Has OCASI Run Into? How Have They Been Dealt With?

The main issue is that staff who use Internet Explorer have run into problems with using Google Mail and Google Docs — mostly with older versions of Internet Explorer but some issues with newer versions as well. So far, no one has been able to figure out what is causing these problems, and so OCASI is considering moving all staff to browsers other than Internet Explorer (Firefox or Google Chrome, for example) to avoid wasting time trying to resolve the problem.

What Are Some of the Key Benefits for Staff of Using Google Apps?

Staff at OCASI really like the Google Mail interface and the features it provides. Since they can access their mail from anywhere with Internet, working from home is much easier (previously, staff would ask coworkers to email their personal account for the day). For staff who like doing other work in the cloud, having access to Google Calendar, Docs and Sites is great as well.

What Are Some of the Key Benefits for IT Staff of Moving to Google Apps?

Not having to worry about backup and the problems it was causing frees up the IT staff to spend time on other tasks such as building out their office's wireless network. They also find that Google Apps saves time in administration in other ways. For example, it is very easy to create new users through the Google Apps Control Panel. As well, there is no need to worry about spam filtering solutions since Google Mail has a great spam filter built-in.

For more information, check out the recording and slides from TechSoup Canada's recent Google Apps 101 webinar.

*US nonprofits are eligible for a Google Apps for Nonprofits discount.

  • Nice article, and we too are very happy with Google Apps, but:

    You should NOT be depending on Google Apps as your only backup!  

    It's true that Google has just rolled out the ability to recover deleted emails (in response to malicious hacking incidents) but you still need to back up your data elsewhere.  You can use a cloud backup solution if you don't want to deal with all that data on your own hardware, but if you keep data in only one location, someday it will be lost, and probably just when you most need it.

  • Thanks for the important reminder, Ridgetrail. We generally recommend the 2x2x2 rule for backing up documents, email, and critical systems. Two backups, in two different places, in the hands of two different staff people.

    So even if an organization is relying on Google Apps, they should also plan to have at least a couple of backups -- particularly of any mission-critical information -- in other systems.

    Thanks,

    Becky

    Editor

    TechSoup.org

  • Amazing write up...I am just astounded by the functions of Google apps..They are truly terrific and flabbergast too..www.googleappsmanagement.com