Can Google really hack it in business?

InfoWorld compares Google Apps' promises with the reality of what it delivers

Google Apps maybes: Data security The fit to business is less clear when it comes to data security, especially for big corporations. Data security in the cloud is an issue "enterprises are going to have to reckon with," admits AlertSite's Godskind. A prime example: In moving to Google Apps, the city of Los Angeles insisted on penalties from Google if any of its data was compromised. Many other customers aren't worried, trusting that bigger (and presumably more tech-savvy) customers will hold Google's feet to the fire on security.

Google says it has many customers in highly regulated industries such as health care. It also says its proprietary encoding of data, its dispersal of data among physical and logical files, all help keep customer information safe. As for regulated data, Google punts: "We recommend [companies] follow their regulations, and we don't give specific advice on how to follow those," a spokesman says carefully.

Rivals hint that Google's storage architecture, in which different customers' data may sit on the same array, pose a security threat. The question of where data sits is also important for organizations that must comply with geography-specific regulations, such as those protecting customer data in the European Union. "We make sure we're matching the regulations customers need," says a Google spokesman, adding that administrators can control which enterprise data various users can see. Google also assures customers they own their data and will always have easy access to it, rather than using its custody of that data to lock a customer in the Google cloud.

E-mail is another regulatory challenge, but Allen Falcon, CEO of Google Apps reseller Horizon Info Services, says the Google's Postini e-mail archiving and recovery service stores e-mail in the write-once, read-many format required by regulators, as well as provides the needed auditing capabilities. Google says it plans to extend the usage policies, rules, and parameters provided by Postini to the rest of its apps.

Google Apps cons: Tech support, limited capabilities, legacy integration So what's not to like? The quality of technical support, headaches around data migration, annoying shortcomings in function and performance, and the pain of changing familiar computing habits.

"There's no one to really call if you're having a problem," says Greg Arnette, who as CTO of e-mail archiving vendor Sonian is both a Google Apps user and a competitor to Google's Postini service. While phone support is included in Google Apps Premier Edition, "They do everything they can to direct you to the online forums," he says. "You never reach a live person. Either they're totally overwhelmed, or they don't have a handle" on support needs.

Mauricio Freitas, a blogger at the tech publishing site Geekzone, abandoned Google Apps for Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite after it took Google 48 hours to contact him about problems with Google Sync for Mobile.

Google says it steers customers to its online support when it believes that will provide a faster and better answer. It also says the 24/7 phone support it offers in its paid version is aimed at administrators, and that it relies on resellers to provide phone support for users and to help companies with especially large or complex challenges using Google apps.

Then there are functional and performance issues. Ragy Thomas, CEO of Sprinklr, a Web marketing firm, is an enthusiastic user of Google apps such as Google Sites but admits its office productivity tools are "not for every company right now." The word processor and spreadsheet lack some features found in their Microsoft counterparts, and sometimes seem sluggish over the Web, he says. He's confident, though, that Google will solve these problems. (Google promises it will close the gap with Office in 2010.)

Another challenge is the integration between Google Apps and the legacy applications that are everywhere in large companies. Rajen Sheth, Google's senior product manager for Google Apps, says Google and its partners are "stepping up" to that challenge. Google, for example, has developed a SAML-based API for single sign-on and directory synchronization. He also cited Ltech, among others, for providing "a secure data connector ... between the Google datacenter and the customer's datacenter."

Google Apps: Nowhere to go but up? Google's flood of new offerings help keep it in the news, serve as poster children for its vision of the computing future, and give it street cred, says AlertSite's Godskind. "I'm a big believer in 'ready, fire, aim.' It increases the pace of innovation."

But "ready, fire, aim" isn't an easy concept for larger enterprises to accept, notes Sprinklr's Thomas. That's why "the very largest companies, those with 100,000 employees, are not looking at a wholesale move," he says, instead using them in specific cases such as allowing employees to share documents with business partners. Still, Thomas insists the upper limit for Google's market "is a glass ceiling and it will be broken." He and other early adopters believe it's just a matter of time -- between the economy and the rise of cloud-enabled technologies -- until even the largest businesses bite the bullet, give up their antiquated PC-centric ways, and move to the cloud.

That's what Google is betting on.

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Robert L. Scheier

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