Oct 8

A look at Google Apps for Your Domain

With Toowoomba in the middle of an amalgamation with 7 different local government authorities who share our boundaries (or in the case of some not even that!) life is looking mighty interesting on various fronts. One of these fronts involve the IT issue of merging multiple disparate systems into one single system.Like any medium sized organisation (Toowoomba City Council currently employs around 900 people) we have a few systems in place to handle things. We’re using Pathway for our LIS data (who lives where and if they have a dog or not style stuff), JD Edwards for financials and assets (e.g. controlling pay roll), ESRI’s suite of GIS products (e.g. ArcMap and ArcSDE; working out where things are in the City) and Hummingbird’s Document Management solution to maintain our corporate documents. The challenge is to take these products and try and merge the information stored in seven different organisations who in some places won’t share any applications and integrate it into one.To make matters worse the organisations are spread in some cases hours away from where we are. So the problem I’m looking at is how do we integrate email, contacts and documents for all of these people together. They’re not going to have any of our standard software beyond Office which is a problem as we use Notes and like to think that one day we’ll move to open source.So Google Apps becomes an option for this transitional period while we try to work out what we’re going to deploy and how we’re going to deploy it. It works within a web browser and an internet connection, its relatively lightweight compared to other distributed solutions (large file transfers weak network connections, Citrix deployments) and offers a far more responsive nature than either of these because technically they are native to the desktop application (e.g. the web browser).Setting it up is an interesting situation as part of it requires ‘verification’.  There are a few options to get verified:

  1. Put a HTML file on some web space (this didn’t work for me)
  2. Set up a new DNS pointer for Google to find (this also didn’t work)
  3. Just set up the DNS the way it needs to be (e.g. pointing things to ghs.google.com)

 The last one ended up being the solution for me even though it isn’t obvious when you first start off that things will work this way. Thankfully you can get things up and running without having to verify that you own the domain, just end up setting up your DNS to point to the right place solves things anyway. So what does Google give you?

  • Mail – Their Google Mail product available on your domain, the main reason a lot of people will be deploying this solution.
  • Calendar – Their calendar solution is integrated into the mail address book. Interestingly enough they don’t have the address book feature as another application which for building corporate address books might be handy, or linking into a website.
  • Pages – Google Pages is perhaps one of the lesser known products in Google’s application stable, is a product similar to the old Homesite and Geocities products of old (before they sold out and had lots of ads, then people realised that doing everything manually most of the time was too much effort and they just wanted a template and WordPress did all they needed, or Joomla! did what they wanted better). I’ve used it since the early beta and this, like its brothers is stand alone as well.
  • Docs and Spreadsheets – Again, the boon here is the integration with Mail’s address book application which means that you have the ability to share documents (and document control) with different people within your organisation. As an administrator you can also restrict documents to within the domain or allow users to share it externally, so this doesn’t make it less secure than other solutions for document sharing (still doesn’t stop users exporting it to another format and emailing it manually anyway).
  • Chat – The final major application is Google’s XMPP powered IM solution, which again integrates into Mail’s address book to provide contact list management integrated with your contact list. This is available via the web browser standalone interfaces, your start page, within the Mail application or using a dedicted IM client such as Adium on the Mac, Google’s Talk application on Windows or the Gajim Jabber client or Pidgin on Linux. These chats can also be logged and are available in the Mail application as well.
  • Start – Like the customised Google home page (iGoogle), this is provided as an option for your domain as well. Again it integrates with the rest of the products like Mail, Calendar, Talk and Docs to allow for a very functional first page to go to (more functional than most options I’ve seen around the place). Its heavy integration in a small way puts it at the functionality level of something like Microsoft’s Sharepoint style solution, however the Google solution is not customisable (unlike Sharepoint) however out of the box it enables users to see more information about their data (such as the Docs integration)

This was just a review of the standard edition, the premier edition (at $50/user/year) offers a few more interesting features such as optional ads, policy and message recovery, resource scheduling, single sign on and other user services (including a 10 GB mail box). As an option to a Microsoft powered world, some of the tools are better integrated and easier to use (collaboration and versioning is awesome in Google’s Docs product) however the simple problem is that when the network link goes down, so does your entire office productivity.Something to dwell on.

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