Boston, Google Apps and the Cloud Battle

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The city of Boston ushered in a new era at the beginning of the year by not just appointing its first new mayor in a generation, but also changing over its 75,000 users from Microsoft to Google Apps. It’s a big win for Google, but it’s not everything it appears.

Boston HarborTo read the press about Google Inc.’s takeover of the city of Boston’s municipal e-mail system with Google Apps, you’d think a bunch of geeks dressed up in disguise and threw Microsoft discs in the harbor.

Headline after headline trumpeted the Google win, citing it as another example of how large business and governments are switching away from Microsoft’s expensive e-mail and productivity software and systems.

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[caption id="attachment_34049" align="alignright" width="150"]Boston CIO Bill Oates Boston CIO Bill Oates[/caption]

“Our new unified, cloud-based communication system is pretty big change from our old set-up," Boston CIO Bill Oates wrote in Google’s corporate blog this week. "Our agencies worked together to manage their mail environments, with resources focused on mail administration and working across the group structures. Our largest department, the public school district, operated on a very separate environment that was in need of a major technical upgrade.”

First, Google did beat Microsoft on price, but it wasn’t the only factor in Boston’s decision to switch. While Oates says Google Apps will save $280,000 a year over the cost of Microsoft, he also cited legacy problems with the way Microsoft and its backup provider, Symantec Corp., updates and supports its software.

Second, this deal isn’t new. Boston announced the contract win to Google partner Appirio in May 2013 and the transition has been happening ever since. For those keeping tally of Google wins over Microsoft, the attention paid to the Boston switch would be known as “double counting” in the old days of Beantown politics.

Third, the real number of supported users is closer to 26,000. Included in mailbox migration count are 50,000 Boston Public School students, each of whom have a school-sponsored e-mail account. While students do need connectivity, communications and productivity software, the majority are not power users and their access is not mission critical. If e-mail goes down at city hall or police headquarters, it’s a far greater matter than if Mrs. Crabapple’s second grade class can’t Google the average speed of a cheetah.

None of this should detract from the technical and operational gains Boston says it’s getting from Google. Its due diligence revealed that Google could have the same level of operational integrity and support for one-third the price. It has guaranteed 99.9 percent uptime. And it has assurances that Google’s cloud-based systems are FISMA-compliant; in other words, no leaking confidential information.

Since the contact was awarded and Appirio went to work, tens of thousands of e-mail accounts and more than 20 million archived messages were migrated to Google’s cloud. The system was full operation when new mayor, Marty Walsh, took his oath on Jan. 6. The smoothness of the transition was noted by David Girouard, former president of Google Enterprise and the executive who practically started the Google Apps channel, who noted on the Google blog, “For those that remember our long and tortuous City of [Los Angeles] process, it's gratifying to see Boston moving 76,000 employees, including police, to Google Apps.”

Of course Girouard, now founder of venture funding firm Upstart, is referring to the disastrous migration by Los Angeles away from Novel GroupWise to Google Apps. The system wasn’t secure enough to meet FBI standards, which threatened to lock the LAPD from access to critical databases, and there were numerous technical issues in moving 35,000 accounts. In time, Google and its partner, CSC, made corrections and salvaged the first big Google App migration.

Since then, Google has been scoring major wins against Microsoft in the battle for cloud-based email and productivity. Big government agencies such as the U.S. Department of the Interior, states of Utah and Colorado, Japan ANA, Roache and Ahold have switched tens of thousands of users to Google Apps for Business.

Impressive as Google’s growth in cloud productivity services has been, Microsoft isn’t exactly losing.

In 2013, after years of fits and stops, Office 365 finally started taking off. Solution providers have migrated hundreds of thousands of mailboxes to the cloud-based service, and converted many client-side Office users to the cloud platform. Microsoft COO Kevin Turner has even boasted that Microsoft has won back more than 400 accounts from dissatisfied Google customers.

Solution providers should worry, though, by the lack of credit they’re getting in these engagements. Neither Microsoft nor Google is very good at including partners in the announcements of these wins. Appirio wasn’t mentioned at all in the recent coverage of the Google Apps activation in Boston, and was merely a footnote in contract award announcement last May. If Google and Microsoft are serious about working with partners in taking their cloud products to market, they need to give them greater billing.

The takeaway: Headlines tell a contemporary story. The media acts in real time, while it takes months or years for true trends to develop and solidify into something meaningful. Google is making strides with Google Apps and providing Microsoft with healthy competition. But the battle is far from won by either side. And, of course, there are far more players in this battle for the cloud than just these two titans.

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