Can Google Apps Unseat Microsoft Office and Exchange?

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In an IT environment of MacBook laptops, Windows PCs, iPhones, iPads and Droid devices, why would any enterprise stick with Microsoft Outlook for email and collaboration?

That very question prompted a 60-day pilot test at New England Biolabs, an Ipswich, Mass.-based molecular biology company. Given the growth of Macs and mobile BYOD technology at the company, as well as the need to collaborate with mobile users and international subsidiaries, the IT team decided it was time to seriously investigate Google Apps for Business as an alternative to Microsoft Outlook and Exchange Server.

"Many of us, myself included, went into the process thinking this would be a no-brainer," says Ken Grady, CIO and director of IT at New England Biolabs. "We figured we'd end up moving to Google, saving a bundle of money, and everyone would be happier."

"Boy, was I surprised," Grady added. As a result of its proof-of-concept testing, New England Biolabs decided to stick with its existing Outlook/Exchange Server set-up and plans to transition to a hybrid solution that adds the cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 for remote and international users.

Why Consider Google Apps?

Like many organizations today, New England Biolabs has a growing army of mobile users, many of whom prefer to use their favorite devices, such as iPads.

"We've given our staff a great deal of device freedom, especially the scientific researchers," Grady says. Some 50 percent of the company's employees work on Mac or Linux computers, the rest on Windows.

New England Biolabs has been an Outlook/Exchange shop for many years, and currently manages a total of about 500 mailboxes. But given the shifting dynamics of its user base and the need to collaborate with non-employees, Google Apps for Business began to appear like it could be a more suitable collaboration platform.

Launched in February 2007, Google Apps for Business costs $50 per user account per year, with no maximum number of users. The suite of SaaS collaboration and document tools currently has a user base of about 4 million customers, according to Rahul Sood, director of enterprise applications at Google. About 5,000 organizations are adopting Google Apps for Business every day, he says.

"In the public and education sectors and SMBs and enterprise, Google Apps is gaining traction, with increased growth and adoption across the board," Sood says.

For example, of Business Insider's 20 Silicon Valley Startups to Watch, 97 percent use Google Apps for Business, Sood points out.

Among the top 100 universities in the United States, 61 are running Google Apps. A number of high-profile enterprises, including Genentech, Roche, Jaguar, National Geographic, Virgin America, Casio and Salesforce, use Google Apps for Business. (Google maintains a list of Apps for Business users online.)

Many companies choose Google Apps because their employees have used Gmail and other Google products for personal use, and they have become advocates for adopting the professional Google tools at the office, Sood says.

Also, companies like Google Apps because they don't get locked into long-term contracts. "We use a flex pay model," Sood says. "If you start using Google Apps and you want to terminate our service, you can do it within the month. There's no lock-in."

Customers also like Google Apps because the cloud-based suite of applications "is more in line with how they want to work in the future," he adds. For instance, the capability to easily collaborate on documents in the cloud from a variety of devices is a particular attraction.

"We've been successful in the enterprise because we've invested in building a platform that allows us to provide these services with the right controls, security and compliance requirements, and the reliability and performance enterprises need," Sood says. "At the same time, enterprise customers can adopt new or additional features at their own pace."

Some analysts agree that SaaS systems such as Google Apps for Business are gaining traction in the market. Outsourcing the hosting and management of a utility service such as email makes sense for many companies, according to Melissa Webster, a program vice president at research firm IDC.

"The need to support a geographically distributed workforce makes a cloud solution attractive, especially the need to collaborate with external stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, partners, investors, students and alumni and investors," Webster says. "Also, hosted solutions are usually accompanied by a subscription licensing model, which is very attractive when capital budgets are constrained."

But Google Apps for Business and other cloud collaboration tools aren't for everyone, Webster says. For example, enterprises usually already have an email/collaboration platform in place, which can make transitioning to a cloud-based system challenging from a change-management perspective.

And that's exactly what happened at New England Biolabs.

How New England Biolabs Tested Google Apps

In early December 2011, the IT team at New England Biolabs initiated a pilot test of Google Apps for Business. The overarching objective was to determine if Google's SaaS suite could provide a single, unified email and collaboration platform for the entire company, including its international subsidiaries. Along with email, the IT team wanted to add collaboration tools to the mix, such as chat or instant messaging, video and Web conferencing and presence.

Specifically, the team developed three sets of criteria against which Google Apps for Business would be evaluated.

1. Functionality. Does Google App for Business offer the tools and features users need? Do those features all tie together well? "Can you get it to do what you need it to do?" was the primary question, Grady explained.

2. Cost. Will Google Apps for Business save the company money overall?

3. Change management. How easy or difficult will it be for users to make the transition from Outlook/Exchange to Google Apps for Business?

The test involved about 24 New England Biolabs employees, all of whom had experience with Gmail as their personal email account. Fewer than half were from IT. The rest were spread across the company, from business development to marketing to research.

"For the test, we sought people we knew were 'IT friendly,'" Grady says. "We wanted people who had expressed an interest in moving to Google Apps. We knew that if we went with Google, it would be a big change. So we wanted to find people for the test who were likely to be 'change champions.'"

During the 60-day trial, participants used Google Apps for Business applications such as Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and, to a lesser extent, Google Sites. During the proof-of-concept period, most testers exclusively used Google Apps in lieu of Outlook, but used both Office apps and Google Docs.

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