Corporate e-mail in the cloud: Google vs. Microsoft

Some large enterprises are seriously considering jumping from Exchange to Gmail, or already have. Here's why.

E-mail is the third rail of enterprise IT operations. You can mess up elsewhere, but bring down people's e-mail and you'll start getting irate calls literally in seconds.

Manesh Patel knows those risks well, but that didn't stop the senior vice president and CIO at Sanmina-SCI Corp. from stepping off the Microsoft Outlook/Exchange platform and moving the company's 16,000 users into Google's cloud -- thereby running the risk of interrupting users' e-mail, even if just temporarily, in the process. The cost savings were simply too good to pass up.

Two years ago, the San Jose-based contract manufacturer relied on stable, up-to-date versions of Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook and Exchange Server to handle its e-mail needs. Then, after a lengthy analysis and pilot, Sanmina-SCI shut down its 100 Exchange servers, traded Outlook for a browser as the primary e-mail client and migrated all of its e-mail users worldwide onto Google Apps for Business suite. This cloud-based service now delivers Google Inc.'s Gmail e-mail offering, plus calendaring and contact management services to Sanmina-SCI's workers.

The company completed the project last December.

Why fix something that wasn't broken? "A lot of people thought I was crazy," Patel admits, but the operational cost savings were just too big to ignore. By moving from an on-premises Exchange architecture to Google Apps for Business Premier Edition, Patel cut costs by more than $1.9 million a year.

Now that its suite of tools has established a foothold among consumers, educational institutions and small businesses, Google is focusing on large businesses -- and it's targeting Exchange users in particular. Google claims to have 2 million business user accounts. There's no data available on how many of those customers, if any, switched to Google Apps from Exchange, but the general belief is that most probably are small and midsize business users who may not have come from an Exchange environment.

To attract even larger business accounts, Google has received SAS 70 Type II certification and now offers -- either directly or through partners -- a range of enterprise-friendly options, including tools for automating Exchange migration, integration with LDAP and Active Directory, and add-ons such as support for BlackBerry users and Postini services for content filtering and message archiving.

Another feature, one recently incorporated from the company's testing lab, allows for delegation, where an executive can give an administrator control over his messages, much like Exchange already offers.

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