Google Apps: One Year In

After using the Google Apps service for one year, our department has collected some experiences that are worth sharing with anyone who might roll out the service for a work group. Google offers ''Google Apps for Your Domain'' as an integrated suite of tools to businesses, non-profits, and educational institutions (free of charge for the latter types of organizations). The Google Apps suite includes Gmail, Docs, and Calendar services that can be unified and branded under your domain name. Our branded Google Apps site is at gCCNMTL.columbia.edu.

Support for mobile devices... is possibly the biggest paradigm shift as smart phones begin to take precedence...
These were our primary reasons for implementing Google Apps:
(1) Google Apps provides services such as calendaring, chat, and contact management that are not available as a central university service at Columbia.
(2) The ubiquitous use of Google services (like Google Docs) under staff members' personal accounts was creating a situation where many important documents would be difficult to share, archive, and control. These documents include grant proposals, resource budgets and presentations.
(3) Support for mobile devices is becoming increasingly important, and is possibly the biggest paradigm shift as smart phones begin to take precedence over laptops for many staff.

Setting up the Google Apps service versus letting individuals use Google's services "in the wild" under their personal accounts offers a number of advantages, including greater flexibility and control over the content within each Google App. For example, documents created within a Google Apps site can be automatically shared with all of the users of the site (there's no need to maintain a list of staff members' personal Gmail account names in order to invite collaboration). Creating ad-hoc groups for sharing documents and forums is another benefit. The CCNMTL Google Apps service was configured to authenticate using the standard Columbia UNI authentication service, negating the need for a second account. (The Columbia alumni office manages thousands of alumni email accounts using this same UNI authentication setup.)

Gmail

Most individuals in the department continue to use Columbia's email system as their primary email service, but the few that have made the switch to Gmail get the benefit of 7 GB of email storage and a best-of-breed webmail interface that surpasses CUBmail in functionality and features. As users' email archives grow beyond the 250 MB quota allotted to each email account, it is easy to predict a slow migration to Gmail. Gmail also includes message tagging, an integrated chat environment (with access to AOL Instant Messaging service), and a group contacts management system. Within Gmail it is easy to activate a setting which masks the "gccnmtl" subdomain, making it appear that email is coming directly from your Columbia email address.

Google Docs

Probably the most important reason we moved to Google Apps was because staff members prefer Google's online Docs environment over Microsoft's Office products. This is primarily because, Google Docs allows our staff to share and collaborate on documents efficiently. Using the desktop office applications, it became increasingly difficult to do basic daily tasks (e.g. tracking multiple document versions or keeping presentation templates up-to-date). With the department's documents now centrally collected, it simplifies staff transitions and would minimize loss of data if a laptop were damaged, lost or stolen.

Google Docs excels (pun intended) when it comes to spreadsheets and presentations, but we continue to debate whether our internal wiki system or Google Docs is best for collaborative work on "word processing" tasks. As we continue to work out best-practices for these document-types, we'll update this article with anecdotes.

Google Calendar

Prior to our transition to Google Apps, the department used an open source calendaring application that centralized staff members' calendars by synchronizing iCal-formatted ".ics" files (either from a desktop application or a personal Gmail account). The system served us well for a long time, but it was never well integrated into the group's workflow--rather it was simply a way to see who was where and when. Google Calendar is probably our most used application in the Google Apps suite. In the span of a week, most of our internal meetings are arranged via the new Calendar application much more efficiently than before. We have created "resource" calendars for our conference and meeting rooms, which helps simplify reservations since they are integrated directly into meeting invitations. Resource calendars have also been established for oft-reserved equipment so that those devices can be easily requested and tracked. Lastly, we established an "out-of-office" calendar to track all staff absences, including conferences, vacations and sick days. Managers and staff prefer this system because vacation requests are made and approved directly inside the out-of-office calendar (obviating the need for paper request forms and shortening approval times).

Google Groups

The Groups service has been used sparingly thus far. We see potential for Groups in capturing project conversations that are lost in email in-boxes (via a CC to a specialized Group email address). By capturing these exchanges, it will make it easier for staff who join a project already in progress to "catch up" by reviewing the history captured in the Groups service.

Google Chat

Because CCNMTL has several open-plan office spaces scattered across two campuses, our staff members use chat extensively for work-related communications. Google Apps' integrated Chat/Jabber system allows us to build "buddy" lists in the web-based mail client, which automatically synchronize with our desktop chat clients (after minimal set up). Previously we needed to ask staff members for their personal AIM account names and maintain lists in order to facilitate chat-based communications. Moving to Google Chat (either in the browser or on the desktop) has greatly increased our ability to contact peers quickly (and quietly!).

Conclusion

We have little to say about some of the other services such as Sites and Contacts because we have yet to use them extensively. Other Google services such as Wave, Buzz and Voice have not yet been integrated into the Google Apps suite, but when they do (and if we use them) we'll add some reflections to this article.

The transition to Google Apps has been rewarding, but not without hiccups. In order to integrate the services directly into the desktop or mobile applications outside of the browser, we needed to set up Google Apps-specific passwords for each staff member. In addition, we've noticed that sharing Google Docs with columbia.edu-based email addresses can cause some problems since our Google Apps addresses are tied to our Columbia email addresses in the system. There is some routing confusion related to the addressing.

On the whole, though, the Docs and Calendaring features alone have been well worth the time and setup. The number of "meeting request" emails has plummeted. Folks have been able to share their personal Gmail calendars into their work accounts, which allows them to log-in once in order to manage personal and work calendars. And when you need to share a document/calendar or initiate a chat session, all you need to know is your colleagues name since the system has an address book record for each of us.