The enterprise business is core to Google’s future. Its approach to collaboration has potential benefits. But are IT directors ready to give it a go?
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The company is known for its software as service tools, which include collaboration and the Google+ social network. Big Query provides business intelligence in the cloud and it recently introduced the Google Compute Engine for infrastructure as a service.
Companies like academic publisher Pearson have embraced the Google model, to deliver collaboration software with greater flexibility than using Microsoft Office and SharePoint.
Prior to Office 365 and Skype, Microsoft collaboration was based on the Windows platform. While Microsoft works well in a traditional IT-centric view of desktop services, supplying a standard suite of software products to users, the world has moved on.
Users share documents on cloud services like DropBox and other consumer-focused online storage services; they use their own Android and iOS powered smartphones and tablets to connect to corporate email.
Danny Attias, CIO at performance improvement firm Grass Roots Group, moved the company off Outlook in February 2012 because he wanted to avoid the cost and complexity of on-premise email.
The group, which has 1,400 employees globally, now uses Gmail as its email system. It used solutions provider AppsCare to replicate all user inboxes and folder structures into Google.
We were trying to put a consumer product into a traditional enterprise and we have grown up together
Pete Shorney, IT global operations director, Rentokil
Soon after, users began using Google Docs for collaboration; the company is using Google Hangouts for online conferencing and is starting to adopt Google+ for social networking. The company is also using a number of third-party apps from the Google Play marketplace.
Attias said: "There are at least three tools we are now using that are integrated into our environment: Smartsheet provides real-time project planning; Lucid Chart is a technical diagramming generation tool and Insight.ly offers a simple CRM."
He said software roll-out and licence management for these cloud tools is easy: "There is a central pool of licences so it is impossible to be under-licensed. There is also no need to deploy any software. They just appear in the More menu within the Google environment."
The products from the Google Play market are not from well-known suppliers. Attias' due diligence process involved looking up the number of downloads, checking user references and calling the help desk number.
Five years ago, Rentokil was one of the first organisations to deploy Google Apps on a global scale for email and collaboration. The first Android phones were coming to market and it was still early days for Google Apps, which Google used to target consumers with a free alternative to Microsoft Office.
As Pete Shorney, IT global operations director at Rentokil, explains, both Rentokil and Google learnt from the experience of deploying Google Apps: “We were trying to put a consumer product into a traditional enterprise and we have grown up together.”
Since 2009, this relationship has changed. “Google is now recognised in the enterprise world,” he said. "Maturity has meant that Google now recognises enterprise IT and IT departments as its customers.”
IT at Rentokil also needed to adapt. Clearly, users needed to be migrated to the new platform, but IT also needed to work in a more Google-like way.
“We had a major shift in how we manage Google as a supplier,” said Shorney.
Unlike most traditional IT suppliers, Google does not work at the same pace as enterprise IT, so the concept of long release cycles does not exist.
“You cannot try to fight the tide of innovation through change management,” Shorney said.
Instead, IT starts to become less worried about the technology being delivered: “In the years we’ve been with Google we have had four minor glitches. We are now more concerned that we communicate these changes to users.”
Read more on Google in the enterprise
Traditionally, change management was used to ensure an upgrade does not take the server down. “[But] since Google Apps is a web-based software service we are never taking functionality away, just adding more,” said Shorney.
However, Shorney admits the company has experienced a couple of issues recently when Google dropped functionality. He said: “Our relationship is such we do get a heads-up , but in the early days the notification process was not robust. We were finding stuff being switched off two days after we had been notified.”
Now the notification occurs earlier. “Google has two release tracks – rapid release and scheduled release,” he said.
Shorney highlights the importance of investing time to get users involved in the deployment phase.
“In our Google programme we targeted the roll-out on a division by division basis. Although we are UK-based, we trialled 700 users, starting in the US,” he said.
The trial gave the IT team an understanding of how to roll out Google: “We put in place a dedicated team of Google admins, three to four per location, to engage with the business divisions.”
The team went around the Rentokil sites wearing Google T-shirts to provide users desk-side support. “Over a week most users become confident,” said Shorney.
Sutton & East Surrey Water is another organisation running Google’s business software. However, rather than using Google for email and collaboration, it has deployed Google Map Coordinate, which provides geo-location based work scheduling, for repairing water leaks.
Jeremy Heath, network manager, said that working with Google is different to traditional software companies, in terms of technical support. But the approach Google takes – where customers raise electronic support tickets – is easier than calling more traditional software firms.
"With Google you do everything online. When I came across an issue I raised it online and I got an answer back in 10 minutes. The response actually came from Australia, which shows support is 24/7 around the world," he said.
What makes Sutton & East Surrey Water significant, is that its application takes advantage of the Google API (application programming interface) to create a line-of-business application using geo-location
Similarly, Transport for London (TfL) has revamped its website, using the API in Google Maps to help commuters get around London.
“We needed to create a good user experience.” said Phil Young, head of online at TfL. The new site will use cookie-based personalisation with mapping integrated into the journey planning application.
Such applications shows that Google is no longer just a cheap and cheerful alternative to "proper" enterprise software. IT leaders are increasingly finding that Google now offers a viable alternative to Microsoft for collaboration software.