Can you run your business on Google?

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Can you run your business on Google?
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There are several factors to evaluate before pushing ahead with a full-scale deployment. These include:

Recurring costs: The cost of hosted apps varies wildly. The Google suites start with a basic free bundle and scale up to the Premier Edition, which carries a US$50 a year charge for each user.

Microsoft’s Office Live also offers a basic free service, but instead of charging per user for its premium services, it charges per business. Its US$20 per month intermediate service offers website hosting, 1GB of web storage space and up to 50 company-branded email accounts. Step up to its US$40 per month premium service and you get all the above, plus an extra gigabyte of web storage, and site-collaboration and project-management tools.
Independent providers sell individual components for different prices.

Fitness for purpose
Many of the SAAS solutions on the market today, including both Google Apps and Office Live, are still in beta and have been for quite some time. You have to ask yourself whether you’re willing to deploy beta software, albeit hosted, in a live business environment. Some industry experts claim beta software is too risky for mission-critical applications. “Are Google’s apps ready for the enterprise? Not yet. It’s surprising how little the applications have moved on since Google first launched them,” says David Bradshaw, principal analyst at Ovum. Business users may find that key features they’ve come to rely on are omitted from Google Docs & Spreadsheets – the option to plot graphs from data, for instance – so a full evaluation is critical before committing to even a trial deployment.
Google has attempted to ease the fears of IT managers with its Premier Edition of Google Apps, which offers 24hr telephone technical support and, crucially, a service level guarantee of 99.9% uptime. Microsoft offers telephone technical support for both its paid-for packages.

The bandwidth burden
If you migrate your email to Google’s webmail service, every single user in your company will likely have a browser open all day, looking at and constantly refreshing Gmail. Using a client email application such as Outlook in conjunction with Exchange still involves some network traffic, but many of the mail-reading and searching tasks take place client-side, with network traffic reserved for send-and-receive checking and the one-time downloading of new mail.

With a hosted web-based email service, even if you’re revisiting old email, there will probably be no caching of that page, creating network traffic every time you load it. Insufficient network and internet bandwidth will hamper the user experience, which means it’s essential to consider how much capacity you have before deploying a hosted app.

“You don’t want network latency to be an issue for the user when you have everyone hitting the web to send a mail or write a document, so it’s harder, in some ways, to architect your network than if you were operating a normal client-server network,” says Peter O’Kelly, an analyst at Burton Group. “Even though bandwidth is increasing, the pipes are getting filled with things like video, so the user experience will likely be less than perfect for the next three to five years while broadband grows to cope with everything we’re now throwing at it.”

Integration with your existing IT
Both Microsoft and Google services will allow you to integrate your existing domain name with user accounts and email, so corporate email addresses can be user@bobsbricklayers.com rather than user@gmail.com. The same applies for websites and intranet homepages hosted by the companies. Integrating the actual web-based applications with your existing software is more troublesome. Don’t expect to upload your legacy Exchange email data into your Gmail-based webmail service, for example.

Flexibility
The biggest problem with all the hosted solutions is that they need an active internet connection to access them. If you’re a field worker or regularly travel, Google’s web-based word processor will be unavailable until all trains and planes offer in-journey broadband. “Google desperately needs an offline client. No net connection means its service is useless, unless you have an offline mirror of some kind,” says David Bradshaw.

The Office Live products are heavily tied into Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, meaning Windows-based PC use is a must. Hosted Exchange is less fussy. Google’s apps are happy with pretty much any browser, meaning you’re not restricted to one type of PC. Macs and Linux-based computers are usually happy with Google’s apps, although you may need to use Firefox rather than Apple’s Safari browser to ensure wysiwyg editing tools function properly, particularly within the word processor and spreadsheet.

Benefits of third-party hosting
The host is usually responsible for deploying patches and upgrades, as well as maintaining a service level agreement to ensure a minimum level of service. It’s an easy way to ensure you always have the latest version of a key application available on tap. And, as you’re renting individual user licences, you can be flexible about the number of accounts you have, ensuring you pay only for what you use. If you’re a fast-expanding company, or one that expands and contracts throughout the year to cope with periods of peak activity, it’s simple to add new user accounts and take them away again.

There’s also a clear security argument in favour of SAAS. Data and applications are stored off the premises in proper hosting environments with redundancy and failover, and backups are performed by professionals, minimising the risk of accidents. This could potentially save a business from catastrophic data loss. “I used to work as an IT manager for a small business, and one of the best decisions I ever made was to hide the company’s server in between two desks. When the company’s offices were burgled, the thieves didn’t find the server and thus didn’t steal it. If they had, the company would have been finished,” explains Bradshaw. “We had backups, but we later found that most of the backups had failed.”

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