Google Workspace vs. Microsoft Office

Google Workspace vs. Microsoft 365: Which has better management tools?

Users don’t directly see these capabilities, but they are core to managing your productivity and collaboration platform.

Google Workspace vs. Microsoft 365 management
Thinkstock / Google / Microsoft

When you choose a productivity platform like Microsoft 365/Office 365 or Google Workspace (formerly G Suite), the main focus is on the platform’s functionality: Does it do the job you need?

That’s of course critical, but once you choose a platform, you have to manage it. That’s why management capabilities should be part of your evaluation of a productivity and collaboration platform, not only its user-facing functionality.

As Google’s and Microsoft’s products have matured, so have their administrative capabilities — and the way those functions are exposed to the admin. Let’s take a look at several facets of each office suite from the admin experience perspective.

Before we begin, a note about Microsoft’s productivity tools: In mid-2020, Microsoft rebranded many of its Office 365 plans; all small business and consumer subscriptions are now Microsoft 365 plans. At the enterprise level, the company continues to offer both Office 365 plans, which include the main Office productivity apps and services, and Microsoft 365 plans, which add Windows and enhanced security measures to the mix. (Old plans from years ago that have been continually paid for may use legacy names or a confusing mix of letters, numbers, and the words “Microsoft” and “Office.”) This story uses “Microsoft 365” as shorthand for both Office 365 and Microsoft 365 plans, and it covers both small business and enterprise plans.

Admin console UI

Both Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 platforms are managed from a web interface. For a number of years, Microsoft completely redesigned the Microsoft 365 console at least once a year, whereas Google typically retained the same layout over a longer period of time, aiding muscle memory but doing little to improve the organization of the whole console. Now, however, Microsoft has backed away from its constant refreshes of the main console user interface, sticking with an intelligent design from 2019 that still works and exposes what you need.

For its part, Google has stuck with its tried and true console while adding some useful features like an answers bar at the top of the window, where you can type in a feature or function name (think “MX records” or “change a user’s quota”) and have it return a live link to direct you exactly where you need to go to adjust those settings.

You need to consider administering Microsoft 365 in two different ways: For items like user accounts and groups, or services like Teams or Power Automate that cover the entire spectrum of the suite, you use the “Microsoft 365 admin center.” (Yes, lowercase is correct there, and it’s meant for both Microsoft 365 and Office 365 admins.)

Sometimes, though, you may want to change settings in the individual server applications like SharePoint and Exchange that make up the suite (such as the size limit of incoming messages or an ActiveSync device policy), in which case you’ll be directed to either a web interface which looks nearly identical to the web consoles used to manage their on-premises counterparts, or another specialized website that Microsoft is building out to replace those on-premises consoles. When you reach the former, you’ll be prompted with hard-to-miss exhortations to try the latter, even when it’s not possible to do what you want in the new interface.

One must also consider Microsoft’s eventual goal — to abstract away the individual servers and services so that you just consume the Microsoft 365 product. This means many security settings that cross individual boundaries of server products reside in new areas — data loss prevention tags, for example, and policies that dictate how mobile devices connect live over at a separate security management site, not within each server product. To be quite honest, it’s become jarring, but if you’re a seasoned Microsoft admin, you won’t have too much trouble living in the new world.

The 365 admin center even sports a dark mode, and lines up all of your common tasks — adding users, adding groups and shared mailboxes, paying for all of this stuff, and more.

microsoft 365 admin center 2022 IDG

The Microsoft 365 admin center puts your most frequent tasks in one place – and now, it has dark mode too! (Click image to enlarge it.)

Google Workspace administration all happens in the same style of web-based console, so it earns points there, but all of the options and settings could be better organized. You may find yourself jumping around the settings to find the ones you want, especially around mobile and data-management settings and controls.

Microsoft is in the process of moving these mobile management settings over to its Microsoft Endpoint Manager suite of services, which is designed to manage computers, tablets, and phones all together without having to deal with the hassle of an on-premises management tool like System Center. While Google’s Endpoint Management platform offers comprehensive control and protection for iOS and Android devices, support for managing macOS and Windows is limited, so Google Workspace is an inferior choice at this time in this respect.

Google Workspace has adopted a tile- or card-based approach, but it organizes settings based on a slide-out menu that groups devices, apps and services, and tasks in a somewhat haphazard manner. It would make more sense to have tasks in one list, services all together in another list, apps in still another list, and so on, so that the context of the item you’re searching for would make it easy to find. (One can dream, I suppose.) You can always type in the feature or setting you are looking for in the top search bar, and once you find what you need, it is laid out fairly intuitively.

google workspace admin 2022 IDG

The Google Workspace admin console is bright and accessible, with an easy search box to find settings and information at the top center of the page. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Google Workspace also hides some lesser-used options from admins, requiring you to click Show More to see the ones Google has decided don’t merit top-level attention. That risks admins not knowing some management capabilities even exist. The questionable aspect of this arrangement is that Google Workspace’s feature set, while having grown over the past few years, isn’t complex enough to need to hide any of them, so there seems to be no need for the obfuscation.

Advantage: a draw

Admin account security

For account security, Microsoft gives you the option of using two account validation options (an SMS text message or an email) to use the admin console. You can also set a passcode requirement for the mobile admin app. Microsoft is moving toward making all of its online accounts (Microsoft consumer accounts, Office 365, and Microsoft 365 ‘work and school’ accounts) compatible with a passwordless approach, where there literally is no password to your account and thus no possibility of it being cracked, and authentication is handled by one-time passcodes and biometrics.

At the time of this writing, Google doesn’t add any account validation requirements, though you can manually apply Google’s second-factor authentication capability in its mobile app to do so. There is no evidence of any plans Google has to go passwordless in its ecosystem.

Advantage: Microsoft 365

Mobile administration

Microsoft offers the Microsoft 365 Admin app for iOS and Android, which lets you do many common management tasks from a mobile device: resetting passwords, assigning licenses to Microsoft tools, blocking or deleting users, setting user roles, updating user contact information, setting up and managing groups and distribution lists, checking service health, reading service alerts from Microsoft, and contacting Microsoft’s support team.

Unfortunately, in my experience, using this app can cause a lot of issues with your tenant, as sometimes changes made in the mobile app do not sync well with the service and can cause phantom users and entries. These require contact with Microsoft Support to remove.

Google also has a mobile management tool. But it’s extremely primitive, only letting you edit user information, add users, suspend or delete user accounts, and manage group memberships. I can’t imagine you would find it terribly useful in anything but the simplest situations.

Advantage: Microsoft 365, assuming the kinks can get worked out

Management controls

The big question is what you can manage in the Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace management controls. After all, admins will adjust to user interface realities as necessary. Microsoft 365 does more than Google Workspace, so it also offers more management functions, especially around enterprise-class needs, including role-based access control to limit administrative powers to smaller subsets of the service and prevent someone with sweeping superuser permissions from changing everything in your tenant.

But Google Workspace covers the key features for organizations with no heavy compliance requirements; I think you’ll be surprised by how many management features Google Workspace actually supports.

For smaller businesses and medium-sized organizations without huge compliance or security concerns, Google Workspace’s feature set is essentially complete. For shops where regulatory compliance is important, or where fine-grained control over many elements of the user experience or server functions is required, then Microsoft 365 is the only choice, simply because it integrates much of the Windows Server system’s management functionality right out of the box.

The table below shows the key capabilities available for each suite. For Google Workspace, we looked only at the business and enterprise plans (known as Business Starter, Business Standard, Business Plus, and Enterprise); the plan for individuals is cheap, but its limited feature set makes it a poor choice for all but the smallest businesses. For Microsoft, we focused on the Microsoft 365 Business plans (Basic, Standard, and Premium) for organizations with up to 300 users and the Office 365 and Microsoft 365 “E” class of plans for larger organizations. Other plans are available but have limitations or strange combinations of apps and support that make them unsuitable in many cases.

Google and Microsoft management controls compared

Note that Microsoft has many other combinations of features and license offerings for Microsoft 365 to do things that Google Workspace doesn’t aim to do, from information rights management to e-discovery to complete mobile device management. It uses a far-too-complicated scheme of license levels (E1, E3, E5), plans (B, P, E), and methods of obtaining services (“Microsoft 365” vs. “Office 365” subscriptions) to make some of these services available, but they’re there.

For most small and medium businesses, Microsoft 365 Business Premium is the standard plan to consider. For larger enterprises, it makes sense to go with the Microsoft 365 E5 plan in most cases; you get powerful security and compliance functionality for the difference in price from the lower-level plans.

Microsoft 365 also has data governance policies, such as for retention and legal hold, that Google Workspace doesn’t offer, though both let you set patterns to detect inappropriate data loss, which is becoming increasingly important in this era of data breaches and leaks of sensitive personal information. Google Workspace offers its Vault service, which allows you to retain messages, Drive files, chat transcripts, Hangout and Meet recordings, and voice and site data, but that appears to be an option not included in the professional package. The more advanced capabilities aren’t usually key for Google Workspace’s traditional small-to-medium business and school targets, so they’re not so much a deficit of Workspace as they are a strength of Microsoft 365 for those willing to pay.

But Google Workspace includes basic versions of many capabilities that cost extra in Microsoft 365, such as single sign-on. Google Workspace also offers an interesting capability for organizations with a large Exchange on-premises user base: An Exchange admin’s credentials can be used to detect Exchange users’ free and busy times, so Google Workspace users can check those Exchange users’ availability when setting up meetings. This is helpful for migrations in the cases of mergers or acquisitions, or where smaller divisions or departments had their own IT infrastructure that now needs to be integrated into the larger picture.

Advantage: A draw, except for businesses with specific compliance needs, or regulated enterprises (Microsoft 365 wins there)

This article was originally published in April 2017 and most recently updated in June 2022.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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