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We are a medium-large non-profit company, with around 1000 staff and volunteers, and have been using MS Exchange (currently 2003) for our mail system for years.

I recently attended a Google conference where they were positing that "Cloud computing is the way of the future", and encouraging us to switch from doing our own email with Exchange, to using GMail and Google Apps for everything.

Additionally, one of our departments has been pushing from inside to do this transition within their own department, if not throughout the entire organization.

I can definitely see some benefits - such as:

  1. Archive space - we never seem to have the space our users want, and of course, the more we get, the more we have to back up
  2. OS Agnostic - Exchange is definitely built for windows, and with mac and linux users on the rise, these users increasingly demand better tools / support. Google offers this.
  3. Better archiving - potential of e-discovery, that doesn't exist in a practical way with our current setup.
  4. Switching would relieve us of a fair bit of server administration, give more options to our end users, and free up the server resources we are now using for Exchange.
  5. Our IT department wants to be perceived as providing up-to-date solutions to technical problems, and this change would definitely provide such an image.
  6. Google's infrastructure is obviously much more robust than ours, and they employ some of the world's best security and network experts.

However, there are also some serious drawbacks:

  1. We would be essentially outsourcing one of our mission-critical systems to a 3rd party
  2. The switch would inevitably involve Google Apps and perhaps more as well. That means we would have a-lot more at the mercy of a single (potentially weak) password. (is there a way to make this more secure using a password plus physical key of some sort??)
  3. Our data would not remain under our roof - or even in our country (Canada). This obviously has plusses on the Disaster Recovery side, but I think there are potential negatives on the legal side.
  4. I can't imagine that somebody as large as Google would be as responsive as we would want with regard to non-critical issues such as tracing missing emails, etc. (not sure how much access we would have to basic mail logs - for instance)

Can anyone help me evaluate this decision?

  • What issues am I overlooking?
  • What experiences have you had with this transition (or the opposite - gmail to Exchange)
  • Can you add to the points I have already outlined?
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One possibility to consider as a compromise as well is one of the many Hosted Exchange providers out there. –  phoebus Dec 7 '09 at 16:50
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That seems to hold all of the drawbacks, while gaining only one or two of the benefits (not managing our own servers, and perhaps a more robust infrastructure (but not comparable to Google's). –  Brent Dec 7 '09 at 18:07

9 Answers 9

up vote 11 down vote accepted

One feature you may find your missing is Outlook. Yes you can use Outlook with Gmail, but not to the same level. You can't use Outlook to open other users calendars or mailboxes, accept meeting invites or get the same offline functionality. To get the full functionality of Gmail, you have to be using the web interface, which some user won't like.

You mention Google apps, and that may be an issue. Users may see the option to open attachments in Google apps, and do so and start editing and saving in Google apps. All of a sudden you have half your documents in word and half in Google apps.

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So, am I understanding you that Outlook will not hook into Google's calendaring system? You're right, i hadn't thought of that. Google Calendar looks fairly robust, and I know there are great 3rd party clients for it, but I just assumed Outlook would work with Google Calendars. –  Brent Dec 7 '09 at 18:14
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This answer is partially untrue. Google Apps supports ActiveSync for Outlook. You will not get as rich an experience without having a local exchange server you can control, but for a lot of the basic things described here it works fine. –  Goyuix Dec 7 '09 at 21:23

I considered making this switch at a private school I volunteer with. We decided to stick with Exchange for the following reasons:

1) End user re-training, they like Outlook alot.
2) Being able to find people in the directory of Outlook, I tried to find a way to re-produce this with Google Apps but I could not find one. Our users don't want to have to memorize email addresses they like to search and find the person to email.
3) Confidentiality. Yes in theory Google is keeping our data confidential but it is all on a hosted server shared with other clients of Google's. I have been around long enough to know accidents happen.
4) User Authentication. I did not want to make people remember another password, they already have one insecure password I don't need another weak password that is live on the internet. There were a couple of integrated solutions but they seemed like kind of hoky.
5) My networking guys did not like the solution as it created weird MX records in our domain.
6) The calendar is used way to much and Outlook doesn't work with Google Calendar, which is already mentioned.

Remember I do all of this work in my spare time as a volunteer so a major part of the consideration was how much work it takes me to train and convert everything. I generally don't mess with something that is working just fine. Ross

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My company (about 10 users) switched from a third-party provider to Google Apps and we're pretty happy with it.

Our younger and more flexible users get along fine by using the Google web client, and can fill in gaps using Mozilla Thunderbird. Our more rigid users will not let go of Outlook, and that can be a real weakness in light of Outlook's apparent shortcomings when dealing with IMAP.

With regard to your fourth drawback, I can't really speak to it since we've not needed a single support request since we've been on board. There was a big outage a few months back but it went away within hours.

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Being a Canadian non-profit your regulatory environment is probably fairly permissive, so ediscovery dictates may not apply to you. This is good in the long run, since handling those is annoyingly expensive.

Another thing to consider is how account access is handled during employee termination events. Make sure the GApps solution handles that per whatever standards you have in place. You don't want ex-employees still having access to documents.

Also, one question that'll come up is how to be logged in to more than one google-account at the same time. One for work, one for private. This is the kind of question your helpdesk techs will get over the cube wall while they're out helping people, but it'll come up. You may need to set polices regarding this if this concerns you.

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One thing that's been true for us is the number of applications that integrate into Outlook and by extension Exchange that can't be tied into Gmail. This really gets to be true when you attempt to do contact managers, VOIP, and a number of other integration pieces.

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Apart from anything else, you should cosider connectivity and bandwidth issues: with Exchange, your e-mail is inside your building; with Google, it's on the Internet. If you lose Internet connectivity, your users wouldn't be able to access anything. Also, badnwidth usage will grow, presumably a lot; just think about users sending attachments to each other.

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Historically bandwidth issues in our company do not come from email, but from streaming content - both by our staff, and due to the websites we host. –  Brent Dec 7 '09 at 18:10
    
But if you switch to GMail, they WILL become an issue. –  Massimo Dec 8 '09 at 4:24

I think one of the major downsides not mentioned is the privacy issue. AFAIK, Google data mines whatever email you have stored in Gmail to provide directed advertising content. I'm guessing Gmail isn't the only place they do this.

Google isn't giving anything away for free. You really need to determine the true costs involved in a transition like this. For me, I wouldn't export email (critical business functionality), nor would I remove my office productivity suite from the desktop (lose the network, you can't even edit a document). I would strive to keep as much of operations under my roof as is possible/feasible.

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The biggest issue at hand here is probably privacy as @Joe Internet has pointed out, but its not just Google Data Mining your stuff.

The US Government might be, too.

Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Feds get full access to your data transmissions without judicial review or even a warrant. Obviously they also don't see any need to notify you about it, when they do and there's been lots of confirmed as well as unconfirmed rumours about the NSA using this law excessively.

It gets better though. Under the Stored Communications Act they can get access to any data stored by your proivder via a 2703(d) order as soon as the data is 180days old.

If you're dealing with privacy related stuff or any sorts of business secrets I would really consider this a serious dealbreaker.

So why not take a look at other options? There is a growing number of actually very usable Open Source Platforms you could use. Some of them actually have a god chance of reaching the Feature Completeness of Exchange pretty soon. I'm keeping watch on these two, currently for example: Tine2.0, SoGO,...

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You're spot on with regards to privacy and legal issues, especially as Canadian citizens. The US government is specifically allowed and possibly even obligated to read any internet transmissions that originate outside the US. In fact, this is the specific mandate of the NSA.

Now, while you might be thinking "we're a corporation, not the military, why would the government care?", please keep in mind that there was considerable grief a few years ago over a certain Boeing contract that beat out Airbus, purely because the US government had read Airbus' e-mail and provided Boeing with details about their bid. You might think that your company isn't large enough for them to care, but since they're already in the business of reading your e-mail, who knows what they care about? That's not even considering more recent legislation that says the police and FBI are basically allowed to go through your data (because your documents live on Google's servers, they exist on US soil) at their leisure and without a warrant. These are things that US citizens have to live with, but Canadians wouldn't unless their mail is located in the US.

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You're right. I didn't think about the legal issue in my answer. For european organisations this actually is a huge issue. Don't know about Canada, though. –  juwi Feb 7 '12 at 2:52

protected by Iain Feb 6 '12 at 21:54

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