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Google in the enterprise

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This article appears in the issue February 2009 [Volume 18, Issue 2]
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Today Google has moved from being simply a consumer-oriented search engine to offering a wide range of enterprise applications. Having spent the last months evaluating the tools and interviewing Google enterprise users, experts and partners around the world, we are unsure if Google itself has a full grasp on what it currently offers. It is at times a confusing story, one that might be clear to the enterprise group, but less so to those outside it.

Although new and seemingly exciting tools appear to emerge from Google regularly, in early 2009 many enterprises are just getting their head around using "the cloud" as a repository. And Google as a vendor/partner is a very different company to work with, particularly if you are used to dealing with more familiar enterprise names such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle or SAP. Those two factors combined—the newness of the cloud and the uniqueness of Google—make for an interesting challenge.

Despite the fact that Google is stepping into software areas dominated by powerful vendors (in particular, the desktop monopoly of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office), even large, well-known organizations have acted as early adopters and have moved critical parts of their IT infrastructure into the hands of Google, the best known examples of which are e-mail and calendaring using Google Apps.

As an indication of the growing importance that Google places on the enterprise space, it now publicly defines its "three areas of core strategic focus" as:

  • Search
  • Ads
  • Apps

This article will focus mainly on Apps, though we will mention other offerings beside Apps that have relevance to the enterprise. We also will describe a sensible approach to how popular tools such as Google Analytics, Blogger and even the much-hyped Chrome browser can fit into the enterprise. We’ll review why you might consider Google for your information management applications, and how to work with Google as a vendor. Finally, we’ll discuss our ideas about the direction Google might take in the foreseeable future. First, we’ll look at what Google actually has to offer the enterprise.

Untangling Google’s enterprise offerings

Search remains Google’s main claim to fame and is still by far its primary business area. It was in the area of search that Google started its enterprise offerings. While Google previously stopped at the firewalls, it introduced the Google Search Appliance (GSA) in 2002 to bring its technology to the corporate intranet and file servers. Now, here in early 2009, Google offers a more mature product, with many improvements since the initial release—in particular, administrative usability and better ranking algorithms. Actually, a number of Google offerings were aggressively upgraded in 2007 and 2008, with GSA oddly enough being among the products with the comparatively slowest product development.

What makes the GSA different from the other Google offerings is that it is actually a piece of physical hardware that you place somewhere in your IT landscape. Most other Google offerings are provided as software as a service (SaaS), meaning that the data resides on the Google network, not yours. Google sells SaaS under the much hyped "cloud computing" umbrella term, emphasizing the potential for organizations to focus on their business and not on their IT infrastructure.

While it is an advantage to avoid acquiring hardware and spending time installing software, SaaS comes with its disadvantages. Gmail already has had a number of outages, some serious. And frequently we also hear concern from IT managers about regular administrative tasks, e.g. what happens when an employee leaves the company? How do they get the e-mails out of Gmail or restrict access to the confidential information in Google Docs? Privacy and data ownership are critical issues to consider before starting.

To understand the different Google offerings better, we divide them into four different areas:

  • Communication and collaboration, with products such as Docs, Calendar, Talk, Sites and E-mail archiving;
  • Web sites, with Analytics/Urchin, Blogger, Chrome, Gadgets and Optimizer;
  • Search, with GSA and Google Site Search; and
  • Application platform, where we took a closer look at Apps from an application development perspective.

Many of those offerings benefit greatly from the well-known Google brand name. But to be fair, some of them have also "changed the rules" in their respective marketplaces, by offering innovative new features, frequently wrapped in an intuitive user interface. But if you simply compare features to features, Docs is certainly a minimalistic alternative to Microsoft Office, just as Analytics offers fewer enterprise features than competitor Omniture, but still the products are immensely popular. As an example, Docs might not offer the advanced formatting options that Microsoft Word offers, but instead it lets you collaborate in real time on creating and reviewing a document. Rather than simply mimic the competition, Google has at times gone in a different direction.

Compared to many of its rivals, low entry level pricing for Google Apps is also a significant driver for adoption. Some products are even free. However, if you want to deploy the products in your enterprise, you’ll typically need to pay licenses for most of them and probably also involve some external help to get up and running. Figuring out costs can be hard, because Google has almost as many license models as it has different offerings. Make sure to budget carefully before you get started; Google will not always represent the best deal.

Working with Google

Even with the economic crisis, Google has a solid financial position. The stock value and market capitalization have fallen a long way from their peak, but Google is among the least likely vendors to disappear any time soon. Over the years, it has begun to show that it takes the enterprise market very seriously—even though it remains a small part of Google’s overall revenues. The company claims that it has started making solid money on the enterprise offerings and has also created an enterprise division to better handle the demand. However, financial analyst estimates place that revenue at less than 1 percent of Google’s overall revenues, so clearly there is a long way to go. As of this writing (December 2008), Google has 600-plus people dedicated to the enterprise out of 20,000 employees. The company has a well-documented organizational culture that is very unusual. For the purpose of this article, let’s just say that more traditional managers might have a hard time relating it.

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