Warning geek stuff, skip this if email and web apps are not your thing 🙂
The big trend these days is cloud computing, a buzzword talked about a lot by IT managers and vendors of IT services alike. Looking after servers isnt a nice task, as the average IT administrator worries about possible threats (electricity fails, overheating, unauthorised persons get into the room, hackers, making sure backups are done, hardware failure, fires or floods) that could take those servers offline.
Cloud computing, is just a term for putting all your data on a server managed elsewhere, by a dedicated hosting company, they keep all the servers in a nice safe purposed designed building that should be looked after by specialists, has power protection and back ups of all the data in case of a physical hardware failure causing files to be lost. It makes more sense to do it this way and takes a huge burden off the IT team.
Google is the biggest supplier of cloud services in the world, as well as a lot of their services are free. Instead of buying the server hardware, pay for the server operating system (ie: Windows Server 2008) and mail management system (Exchange 2010) the organisation I work for just have Google do all of the work of hosting the mail for us.
I started using a normal version of Gmail for my own personal use about 7 years ago and have not looked back. Now Google do a business version of this which is more or less the same, you get to assign a domain name email@example.com and the IT person in the company has a admin console which they can add, change, suspend or delete accounts, just a few minutes work to add a new member of staff.
For the free package you have 500 mail accounts and 7Gb of email per person. The most one of our staff has used in 55%. Support is not included, get an issue and you are on your own searching to find out what is wrong, alternatively the paid accounts have 24 hour telephone support. Obviously Google use their hugely successful adverts to get revenue from the free accounts.
Last week I moved over four of our users off an old POP3 (term for mail account provided from a specific mail account, (in UK: Orange/Wannado/Freeserve, Talktalk, Tiscali, AOL, Virgin, BTconnect, in Israel: Walla, Netvision, Bezeq etc) to one hosted by Gmail. This has a great many benefits, the mail is stored on Google’s servers and not onto your own computers, so a hard disk fails on your computer, you will not lose everything. I could copy everything of the POP3 mail account to Gmail using some free dedicated tools that did all the hard work provided by Google. Calenders and address books are all copied over too. Now the staff can work anywhere (if they are ill or on holiday they can work from home) or on a mobile device.
But as well as a huge and free mail systems, Google are heading for a showdown with Microsoft to not only steal people away from Outlook for email, but from Word and Excel as well.
I rarely use Word and Excel now, and like the idea of writing documents, drafts for my blog, to do lists, documentation for work with Google Documents and get at it from any computer anywhere on the internet.
Its still needs a bit of time to mature I think as a substitute for Microsoft’s Word and Excel, but Google Apps is indeed a jolly good package of web based apps you can use anywhere.
Being able to collaborate on a single document amongst a team of people, gives you some big advantages if say, a technical manual, Bob can edit the first few pages and Gary and put in an index at the end. This can speed up working on large more complex documents, rather than have email attachments to and fro and worry about who has the most recent copy of a document, when instead its stored in one central place and everyone can get at it.
Possible limitations and issues.
Gmail does not support sending or receiving read receipts. Outlook has a feature when sending a mail which is important to force the user to send an acknowledgment they got it.
Clicking on an email link on a web site does not have a way of opening a new tab in your browser to send a mail to that link. Instead you are likely to get crummy old Outlook Express or Outlook (even if not configured to persuade you send mail that way. I think this could be fixable with an extension for Firefox or Chrome.
The British spell checker extension for Firefox only intermittently works. (Although seems to want to force me to use American spelling!)
The word processor app has the text cursor disappear sometimes, not sure why. Means I can still type ok.
Google Spreadsheets doesn’t allow text put in cells (especially when writing titles at the top of a sheet) to flow over to the next cell like Excel does. There is got to be a simple way around this I am sure, I just need to read up on this some point.
Software update roll outs
In the world of traditional locally installed software, no IT administrator worth his salt rolls out an update for a software package in a live commercial environment without testing if first. Small discrete changes in a new app can break functionality in a business’s own set up, and can be hugely difficult to track down.
Therefore with software offered as a service, a current version and new version should be running in tandem in order for people to test and make sure it all works correctly as well as letting users familiarising themselves with it. Users get upset if things get changed around unexpectedly.
So when improvements are announced, I am hoping Google can let us try the new versions a little at a time to make sure there are no compatibility problems.
We had some headaches with our users trying to add attachments to emails once, this issue was the same on PCs and Macs, IE, Firefox or Chrome. Searched the web for a solution. Nothing. Possibly bug that Google hasn’t owned up to, or issue with Israel hosted Gmail accounts maybe.
Security and accountability
When I left Israel before, my administrator rights over my Google Apps got revoked suddenly. The rest of my team did not disable my account.
It turns out this is a security feature as (it would seem) when I was trying to access my account back on a UK IP address (instead of a Israel IP) flagged this as suspicious activity. I guess this is a good idea, but it would of been nice for my colleagues to get some warning of this to work out why.
One of email accounts on our systems disappeared suddenly. I had been deleting some redundant accounts the week before. I thought I had double checked everything very carefully, but it might of been my fault.
Therefore, a status windows of recent activity I think is really in order. I am going to imagine that a fictional company called Freds Tropical Fish has three IT administrators called Bob, Gary and Sheila. This week Sheila is newly hired so her colleagues create her on the system.
1.45 17/6/10 Bob has created user – firstname.lastname@example.org
4.24 16/6/10 Sheila has deleted – email@example.com [undo]
9.28 14/6/10 Gary has given user – firstname.lastname@example.org – admin rights
9.14 14/6/10 Gary has created user – email@example.com
Really just a box with recent activity is needed, then I know if its my fault I deserve to getting a kicking for deleting something by accident 🙂
Google being the largest player of Cloud services in the world ought to have another impartial organisation just arbitrate over privacy and security, following a scare over Google’s camera cars that took the streemap pictures were also listening in on people’s wireless networks, Google said they apologised and they weren’t supposed to be recording this particular information.
With its world leading infastructure and rumours that the NHS could store patient records there, this could be physically possible, but some kind of trusted third party authority to make sure data is held securely there would give people peace of mind.
I would like to see some actual site Google can show how their system fails-over in the event of a outage at one it data centres. I am assuming there is plenty of co-location (ie: my files are hosted in two different physical locations) in case of something severe, lets say a fire broke out affecting a server.
Hey Google, you could even use Google Maps with pins to show where your data centres with pins showing, with live stats of any possible issues and what the procedure is for fail-over if one of those has an outage.
This is particularly worth thinking about in Israel where there is always the threat of war.
3G mobile support
If a user is on a laptop out in the field away from a regular network connection, they maybe on a 3G cellular modem. These things can be expensive offering pay per megabyte metered usage. Here network connection should be done in such a way to only use a small measured amount of bandwidth as and when necessary and caching the work locally on the PC’s hard disk.
I have a friend who does support in South Africa where domestic broadband availability is a rarity and expensive, this would be useful for him.
Google admitted there was a security vulnerability. If they are honest about it and takes steps to fix it swiftly then this is fine, all software has security holes which need to have updates put on regularly.
Training and online help
This is probably the most tricky aspect of the whole thing is getting users familiar with using it.
Here is some ideas.
Microsoft put a nice thoughtful bit of assistance for their users moving up from a rival product.
Look at Microsoft’s Word and you can see help for those used to using Word Perfect which was a popular word processor in the 1990s.
With the older versions of Excel, (sorry don’t have a picture) you can see what to learn for users that were on Lotus 123.
Mozilla does this with Firefox too. 🙂
So, Google could offer some help that shows a list of shortcuts of what user may need to get used to when changing from Microsoft Office.
Overall I am very happy with the way Google documents/apps works, ease of merging in old mail accounts from another provider and look forward to when new features and improvements are released, there is growing better integration with things like maps and language translation as well which are enormously useful too. I like the fact if your wireless drops on your laptop, its not an issue as a document is saved every one minute or so, so it should be safe in the event of loss of network connection, or the PC crashes or loses power.