Messaging and collaborative working are key applications in any business, but they don’t have to be hosted in-house with a growing number of cloud-based services available to meet such needs.

The advantages are fairly clear cut, starting with fast deployment and no need for local servers or desktop applications, apart from a browser. Maintenance is simpler too, with the software updated by the service vendor most of whom also offer support either directly or via resellers. Running costs are also much easier to predict and control.

On the downside, availability, security and performance can be issues as can integration with existing solutions and ways of working. Moreover, not all services are equal and it’s important to understand exactly what the various products have to offer.

What is it and who is it for?

Google Apps is a suite of hosted information sharing and collaboration tools aimed, primarily, at small to medium-sized businesses, although the company does claim scalability and a number of large enterprise wins.

Messaging is the principle component, based on the technology behind the free Google Mail (Gmail) product. As such, Premier Edition users get much the same kind of e-mail, contact management and calendaring facilities, but using their own domain name instead of an assigned @gmail.com address. More than that, the Premier Edition delivers a massive 25GB of inbox storage per user, compared to just over 7GB with the free service, plus the ability to share information and collaborate with other domain users as though using an in-house messaging server.

Other differences include a Web-based console to manage user settings in the Premier Edition, plus it’s possible to turn advertising off inside the browser based Gmail client, and brand the interface with a corporate logo. Added to which Premier Edition users can have their messages pushed out to Blackberry, iPhone and other mobile devices and download a plug-in to use the familiar Outlook client rather than the Gmail browser interface.

Google Apps isn’t only about messaging, the suite also includes Google Docs, enabling users to create and edit documents, spreadsheets, presentations and the like and store them online. Again, it’s the same Google service that anyone can sign up to for free, but with additional tools to enable Premier Edition users to collaborate and share information. Added to which Premier customers can build team intranets using Google Sites and share video using a kind of cut-down YouTube service (Google Video).

Other features of the Premier Edition include Active Directory integration, single sign-on support and the ability to enforce the use of SSL encrypted connections. Additional security is also available using Google’s Postini service, along with custom footers on outgoing messages and the ability to archive messages for up to 10 years.

Pricing & setup

Google employs a very simple pricing model of £33 per user/year, making it very competitive with alternative hosted services, Google promising 99.9% uptime with a proper SLA and both phone and email support.

As a hosted solution there’s very little you have to do to get started. The main requirement is to tell Google what domain you want to use (or buy one through them), then prove ownership—to stop domains being hijacked. Either by uploading code to the domain involved or making changes to its DNS settings. That done all that remains is to change your domain DNS to direct incoming mail to Google’s servers, something we found easy to do using the information and examples supplied in the getting started checklist provided.

There’s no need to install or maintain any application software as such. All users need is a compatible browser and the Outlook plug-in if they want to use it. The biggest hurdle will be the migration of existing messages, contacts and other existing data. A number of tools are available to do this, centred around Exchange Server and Outlook, although other platforms, including Lotus Notes, are supported. We had few problems with these although migration can take several hours per user, so allow plenty of time unless starting totally from scratch.

As with all applications the software behind Google Apps will be updated from time to time, but most updates will be implemented transparently requiring no action on behalf of either users or system administrators. Major enhancements are advertised well in advance and customers can opt to trial important new features before implementing.

The basic subscription should cover the needs of most small business users. The only extras are likely to be additional storage (possibly for message archiving via the Postini service), and third-party add-ons required to further extend functionality.

Does it do it well?

Google Apps Premier scores highly when it comes to ease and speed of deployment. A small company can be up and running in just a few hours and new users added in minutes. After that there’s little need for much management or maintenance, although that’s more a product of being a hosted service rather than anything specific to the Google solution.

The most mature components—messaging, contacts and calendaring—are the biggest selling points. Small companies will particularly like being able to access e-mail, calendars and contacts from anywhere, without the need for complex and, often, expensive VPN arrangements. Likewise the ability to push messages out to Blackberry, iPhone and other mobile users, at no extra cost, is a major plus.

We particularly liked the browser-based mail client with its threaded conversation view and labels to organise messages. However, these aren’t to everyone’s taste and the more conventional Outlook plug-in is a useful and usable option.

The Google Docs component is much less mature and, despite a recent revamp of the underlying technology, still no match for what Microsoft Office has to offer. That said it’s becoming increasingly usable, with a growing band of third party add-ons that can be used to extend and enrich the experience. Indeed, Google recently acquired one of these third-party developers (DocVerse) and is expected to incorporate its Microsoft Office integration technology into the core Google Docs service fairly soon.

Where does it disappoint?

Don’t expect to be able to replace Microsoft Office with Google Apps as, despite the updated document editing and sharing technology, the Docs component falls far short of what Office has to offer. Sure, you get to store and collaborate on documents online, but the tools are far from feature rich and storage is limited. Further development is sorely needed and Microsoft is fighting back with its own online offering in the form of Office 2010 Web Apps.

The Outlook plug-in, too, has its issues. Not so much on the messaging side but when it comes to calendaring and more advanced collaboration features. Google itself admits to limitations and the support forums are full of threads relating to the plug-in which, by all accounts, doesn’t scale well beyond the needs of the small business.

Other factors to bear in mind include data ownership and security. The company does offer broad assurances as to compliance, but Google Apps is a US-based service and may or may not conform to all European legislation.

Would we recommend it?

For small companies with limited budgets and little in the way of in-house expertise, a hosted messaging/collaboration service makes a lot of sense. Google Apps is a front runner in such situations, being quick and easy to deploy with costs that are both clear and fixed. The functionality on offer ticks the majority of the boxes, with messaging and calendaring the prime movers in this respect. Just don’t expect to do away with Office and other local applications. Google Apps goes some way down that road but stops fairly short. At least for the time being.

Higher up the food chain, too, the benefits are less obvious, hosted Exchange and other alternatives matching what Google Apps has to offer in a more robust and scalable way. It’s still worthy of consideration, but careful evaluation is required before committing a large company and its users to the Google solution.

Author profile: Alan Stevens

Alan Stevens has been working in the IT industry for over 30 years, during which time he has tried his hand at just about everything, from mainframe operator, through development and support roles to running his own training and project management companies. Alan combines consultancy with writing for the leading print and online IT titles, specialising in business IT and communications. An erstwhile business editor on both PC Magazine and PCW, Alan’s work can be found on all good Web sites. He also writes white papers and conducts independent tests of hardware and software.