Why a billion dollar corporation entrusted its e-mail to Google

If you were to put our corporate e-mail in the cloud, who would you trust more: Google or Microsoft? I decided to pursue this week's story on Google versus Microsoft in the e-mail cloud space after speaking with Manesh Patel at the recent Computerworld Premier 100 Conference.

Patel, CIO of contract manufacturing firm Sanmina-SCI Inc., talked about his experience transitioning some 16,000 users off of an on-premise Outlook/Exchange email system and into the Google cloud -- specifically Gmail and Google Calendar.

They called him crazy 

Manesh admits that when he first brought the idea of replacing Outlook with Gmail some in management thought he was crazy. But after a year of due diligence, he said, the savings were too big to ignore. "Google apps looked like it was cost effective. Weren't sure if it was ready for prime time," he admitted.

Email, he says, is something that's critical to have but, he says, doing e-mail better than everyone else is not a competitive advantage. "Having said that if you break e-mail it's a huge competitive disadvantage." So the decision to move e-mail and calendaring into the cloud was fraught with potential downside risk.

Security is a big concern for most organizations considering moving applications into the cloud, and Patel says his team carefully reviewed the issues during a year-long due diligence review of the project. But the system, which works through the company's corporate single sign-on infrastructure, is at least as good as what Patel's team could have come up with. "Frankly Google has a lot more resources than we do when it comes to security," he said.

His team went with a rapid ramp up once the pilot was finished. In this way he wouldn't have half of the organization on one platform and half on another for an extended period. "There was a real chance of causing confusion and prolonging migration process," he said. Patel's one regret: Not requiring users to attend training classes prior to cutover. They were busy, they thought they knew all of the ins and outs of Gmail and Google Calendar. Soon after the deployment many of those who passed on training realized that they really didn't know as much as they thought -- and IT got a lot of calls. Despite that, however, he says the vast majority of users handled the transition just fine.

Bumps along the way

Is it perfect? No. Some user interface features, such as drag and drop, won't work until browsers integrate the emerging HTML 5 specifications. To get around that, he could have opted to keep Outlook as the front end. However, the goal was to move off of Outlook and so they decided it would be better for users to make just one transition.

Another issue: Gmail's threaded approach to organizing the inbox was jarring to some employees, who preferred Outlook's folder-based approach to organizing messages. Then there was the issue of Blackberry support. Blackberry smart phone could access e-mail fine, but calendar updates went one way only -- you could download changes but could not change an appointment on the Blackberry and have it propagate back up to the Google Calendar. That and most other issues have since been fixed, but at the time (summer of 2009) it was a limitation for some folks at Sanmina.

Gmail,Patel says, does 90-95% of what Outlook/Exchange was doing for the company. That's more than made up for in cost reductions. Patel estimates that the cost of running Outlook/Exchange in his organization runs about $18 per user per month. The new system saves about $10 per user per month. That $10 savings multiplied by 16,000 users added up to $1.9 million a year -- and that is what sold management on the change. As an extra plus, the e-mail system cost went from a fixed to variable cost. "The financial guys loved that," he says.

Fringe benefits

But for Patel two other benefits are more important in the long run. The first one is the flexibility that a cloud-based service conveys. The second was the ability to integrate e-mail and calendaring functions into a more socially networked, collaborative environment. With Google, Patel says, "We saw a road map of future products and services that enabled this culture of collaboration."

The next step is to start familiarizing users with other Google tools, such as Google Docs. While these tools will be an adjunct to the traditional Microsoft Office suite on each user's desk, he doesn't envision cloud-based services replacing Office -- at least not any time soon.

Patel finished up the roll out in December, although he still must upgrade some executives (each will be upgraded and trained one on one) and upload e-mail histories -- a time consuming process he estimates will take another 3-6 months.

Now the question is how to get users to make effective use of other Google applications outside of those baseline e-mail and calendaring niches. And internally, the support staff is still adjusting to the services-based model. "That's an important aspect of moving to the cloud," he says.

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