On Google Apps for Business

16Feb, 2011

We’ve deployed Google Apps for dozens of businesses, large and small, and have encountered a lot if heartburn and headaches as well as sighs of relief. We decided this would be a great techblog post to shed light on some of the recurring issues that seem to arise when we move people to Google Apps.

The key benefit to Google Apps is that it is 100% cloud-based (or, it is meant to be), eliminating the maintenance and configuration nightmares of on-site exchange servers. Back in the day, everyone had an SBS with Exchange, had to manage spam filtering, incoming and outgoing firewall configurations, SMTP relays, remote users connecting over HTTP, security certificates, updates, (the list goes on and on). This, of course, required constant babysitting of servers, and is just impractical for a small business with limited resources to handle.

Google Apps provides spam filtering, mail, calendars, contacts, Google Docs, and a whole host of other cloud-based services wrapped up into one nice little package. Anyone who has ever used a gmail account knows that it looks the same everywhere, doesn’t require any special software on your PC, and it’s completely web-based and intuitive to use.

Google’s answer to Exchange users who simply cannot function without Microsoft Outlook is “Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook”, an add-on program that syncs mail, contacts and calendars from google apps to Outlook. (It does this by fooling Outlook into thinking it’s talking to an Exchange Server) The two biggest reasons we’ve found that clients can’t be pulled away from Outlook is Searching through old emails, and Google’s “Conversations” which lumps email threads with the same subject together in your inbox. We believe that Gmail’s advanced web searching is as good as or better than Outlook’s, and that conversations are a MAJOR plus, and certainly not a hinderance, but some Clients just aren’t willing to take that for an answer.

Another big complaint is just not being able to access your mail when you are offline. Most of us are never far from an internet connection at any given point in our day anymore, but for those who like to clean out their inboxes while traveling on an airplane or bus, No internet = No Google Apps. (There is a new “offline mail” feature that creates a local cache of mail on your computer and is still accessed via web browser. We haven’t played much with it yet, but some clients have told us it works)

Using Outlook to sync with Gmail is counterproductive for many reasons, mostly due to the fact that you are tying your daily workflow to a piece of software when the whole point of moving to Google in the first place was to eliminate that dependence. Google Apps’ webmail is a requirement for making changes in settings, so it’s impossible to not use the web interface at all.

Google Apps sync for Outlook is also limited in the amount of mail it can store locally. It’s set to 1GB by default, but Google warns that increasing this can come with serious limitations. The end result is that it will sync the most recent emails until it runs out of local room, and the rest you’ll have to go back to the web for. This is another nightmare that clients just aren’t happy with, and there doesn’t seem to be a fix for it yet.

On the other hand, we’ve found that organizations who are already Google-friendly (meaning their employees use and LOVE their personal gmail accounts), the transition away from exchange is a welcome weight off of their backs. A user who has gmail for personal use and then is forced to use Outlook at work, or Exchange Web Access while on the go (Exchange Webmail leaves a LOT to be desired) will hate switching between the two, and we’ve heard of people who forward all work emails to their gmail accounts just to get away from the Microsoft mess. Google Apps and Gmail are also ridiculously easy to sync with iPhones, iPads, and Droids. (Blackberries are another cause for concern, and have led to some pretty outrageous syncing issues if not configured correctly, but that’s another blog post)

With all that said, the best advice we have for businesses who are considering switching to Google Apps is to embrace it as the cloud-based system that it is and stay well away from trying to use it with Outlook. If you’re not ok emailing from a web browser, then Google Apps probably isn’t for you.