Microsoft Exchange is without a doubt the 800 pound gorilla when it comes to business email, but the tide is steadily turning. Cloud alternatives like Google Apps and Microsoft’s own Office 365 are starting to take hold, and the need for an on-premise Exchange server is dwindling. My company FireLogic is hearing from small business owners on a monthly basis that are looking to make the cloud jump.
It should come to no one’s surprise that while I believe Google Apps is a great cloud product, it’s not perfect. The cloud as a whole is still in its infancy and there are functional and technical gaps that are steadily being filled by providers. A lot of Technibble readers have emailed me asking a common question: “How do I fill ‘this’ or ‘that’ need with Google Apps? It doesn’t come in the box!”
I want to address that very question. I had a great discussion a few weeks back with Lisa Hendrickson on the BAMcast podcast about the new shift towards cloud-managed IT services. As the cloud takes over much of what we used to maintain onsite, the value proposition this provides is multi-faceted in cost, time, and other aspects. While Google Apps plays a large role in this evolutionary move, it does have its shortcomings. Namely, areas such as shared contacts management, daily backup, and advanced security controls are some of the most popular things I get asked about.
Whether you’ve already moved your own computer repair business, or are helping customers make the move, I’d like to give you some pointers on the tools I’ve been using the help fill these “need gaps.” All of the below recommendations can be found in the Google Apps Marketplace, and I have personally used all of them in some capacity before giving them my stamp of approval.
Cloud-based backup for Google Apps with Backupify
Some find the concept of backing up the cloud foreign. Isn’t Google Apps already backed up across multiple regional data centers? It is, but there is a difference between operational redundancy and long-term data safekeeping. While Google’s systems won’t delete data from under your feet, there is always the fear that human mistakes can compromise business data. For example, Google Apps keeps deleted email for up to 30 days; but if you empty your trash can, you’re on your own.
This is exactly where Backupify picks up the slack. By design, the product provides automated daily backups (with unlimited retention, if needed) for Gmail, Drive, Calendar, Contacts, and Sites. The product affords one-click data export for any combination of data from user accounts. The beauty of Backupify is in how simple it makes backing up Google Apps on a domain-wide scale.
Pricing for Backupify is extremely reasonable, with the standard service level starting at a cheap $3/user per month. That comes out to only $36 per person for an entire year of backup capability. Compared to cloud backup providers for traditional on-premise data, like Carbonite Business with a starting price of $229/yr, Backupify presents an excellent value overall.
Google’s own Vault service for Google Apps comes in at $5/user per month, but the increased cost takes into account the security controls that Vault provides as well (note: Vault’s availability for your domain depends on when you signed up for Google Apps; Google is slowly rolling it out for all domains.) For basic backup needs, Backupify truly can’t be beat.
Cloudlock: “Group Policy” for Google Apps data security
Ditching your in-house Windows server doesn’t have to automatically mean giving up finite control over how your data is accessed and shared. Cloudlock is the answer businesses have been waiting for. The product started out as a bona fide administration tool to go above and beyond what Google Apps already offers in terms of sharing & privacy controls. Now, Cloudlock has expanded into a full blown data auditing, compliance control, and even “app firewall” suite to prevent data leakage via third party apps.
The product’s interface is very intuitive and easy to use. Honestly, if you’ve done any Windows server management with Group Policy, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you’ll pick up its intricacies. I’ve gotten a few companies onto the platform where data security is paramount, and execs are handling their own administration of the product now. The fact that settings can be changed centrally over a web-based portal by anyone with internet access and proper credentials is a plus, especially for independent consultants that may be assisting companies in managing their Google Apps domains.
Pricing is super affordable at only $12/user per year for the starting level product which is squarely aimed at small to midsize businesses. Various pricing structures are available for non-profit, gov, and educational organizations too. In unison with Google Drive, CloudLock truly unlocks the potential for a viable “cloud file server” for any sized company.
Shared contacts (and more) done right via FlashPanel
If there’s one area where Office 365 beats Google Apps “out of the box” it’s clearly in how shared contacts are administered. Google expects users to implement usage of their Shared Contacts API in order to manage a global address book in Apps. It’s frustrating and bewildering (even a bit foolish) but luckily, the wonderful tool FlashPanel has filled this glaring need gap.
FlashPanel does a whole lot more than just make shared contacts administration easy as heck. The primary reason I install it for small businesses is because I can show them how to maintain and edit their own shared contacts which push out to each user’s Google Apps Gmail account in a given domain. If you’ve used a Global Address List in Exchange, then you know the beauty of doling out a common contacts list of external users. FlashPanel provides a simplistic GUI for editing, deleting, or adding contacts – and multiple admins can even be allowed to make these changes. A win win.
Some of the other cool features of FlashPanel include a functionality called Mobile Sync that allows you to force shared contacts into specified users’ My Contacts list, which equates to allowing for mobile phone syncing of these entries. We use this at my own company and love it. It can also help with basic auditing of how and where Google Drive items are being shared, managing Google Groups easily, and even turning on Out of Office responders on behalf of users!
I can’t speak highly enough about FlashPanel, not the least due the product being completely free in public beta now until roughly the end of 2012. After that, they claim that tiered pricing will be introduced for premium features (like Mobile Sync, sadly) but I think the product will be worth every penny once it goes to a paid model.
The Google Apps Marketplace is vast – trial your own apps
By all means, the above 3 apps are not the only things you will find useful from the Apps Marketplace. I highly suggest that you peruse the offerings in the extensive directory Google provides to see what else you may come across. It may be a good idea to have a look at the solutions available before migration so you can even run various needs/features through a trial. Proper planning is always the best guarantee against a botched migration.
If you’ve got any Marketplace Apps that you found useful, please share them in the comments area below. The only reason I know about most of the apps above are due to online users suggesting them in my own customers’ times of need.