Google hearts IT managers

With the launch of the Google Apps suite last year, Google Inc. became a provider of hosted collaboration and communication software for small and medium-size organizations, and it made clear its aspirations to lure large-company IT managers and CIOs with the suite's Premier Edition, introduced in February. This move, which puts it in direct competition with software heavyweights like Microsoft Corp., builds on Google's first steps as an enterprise vendor years ago when it launched its first enterprise search product.

Although Google generates most of its revenue from search engine advertising, it says it is committed to the IT enterprise space. IDG News Service recently had a chance to talk to Rajen Sheth, Google Apps product manager, about the challenges and opportunities Google sees in enterprise software. Following is an edited version of the interview:

IDGNS: Does Google's Enterprise unit have a good understanding of the needs of IT managers and CIOs?

Sheth: I think we do. We're breaking new ground in some of these areas, for example with Apps and the concept of hosted applications for large companies. We're learning as the industry is learning in some areas. In our Enterprise division, everyone has worked at a significant enterprise company before, from the sales force to product management and engineers. They all know what it means to be an enterprise company and to build enterprise products. That said, you'll see us do things differently from other enterprise organizations, in the ways we build products and roll things out, and you see that already with the Search Appliance and with Apps.

IDGNS: How big of an issue are government regulations when you offer hosted applications and you store customers' data, particularly for customers in heavily regulated industries like health care and financial services?

Sheth: We've added functionality like the ability to put a mail gateway in front of Google [Apps] to filter all your incoming and outgoing mail and also archive it. That's important for financial services companies that need to archive mail for six or seven years and can't let e-mail messages that, for example, contain social security numbers go out.

IDGNS: You have made an uptime commitment for Gmail of 99.9 percent availability and yet you have had several Gmail outages affecting Premier Edition customers.

Sheth: Several of the things we hit were anomalies right after our launch, unfortunately. We have done pretty deep postmortems on them and we're using those experiences to improve the product and what we do. [These incidents] have helped us examine the whole process and think of other things we're going to do. For example, regarding notification to customers, we're working through a variety of processes by which we can further give customers visibility into what's going on with their systems, expected recovery times, current status and things like that.

IDGNS: Are you thinking of beefing up phone support?

Sheth: We offer 24 by 7 phone support with the Premier Edition. We're scaling that team more and more. We have a combination there of front-line support and enterprise support engineers. Similarly to how we support very high-end customers of the Search Appliance, I think we can do the same for Google Apps.

IDGNS: Becoming a Premier Edition customer is pretty inexpensive at US$50 per user per year. Have you been hit with a tidal wave of signups? Can you support the volume of customers you're getting?

Sheth: The uptake and interest have been very good, but we were expecting it. We were scaling up the team and the resources, so we were able to handle it quite well. In terms of scalability of our systems, it's something we're tremendously good at. Even if we add a 100,000-person corporation, it's still a very small fraction of the entire user base, so we can scale up our systems pretty easily. The [consumer] services that we offer are already scaled up to very high degrees. We have tens of millions of Gmail users, for example. In terms of support, we started scaling up that organization a while ago to meet the demand we have now.

IDGNS: Any plans to create desktop clients to give offline support to Google Apps?

Sheth: The offline experience is definitely a hole in the product. It's something we're exploring in various ways. Right now, we let people import and export to a [third party] offline client. That's adequate but it's not the endgame. There's nothing I can talk about right now in detail [regarding future plans].

IDGNS: Many express concern over data security in hosted applications in general. How do you address those concerns?

Sheth: Security has been part of Google's development and operational philosophies from the very start. We've taken a lot of measures to protect the data centers and the infrastructure from external attacks.

Also, Premier Edition lets customers apply their security policies on top of the Google applications. For example, you can use your own authentication systems, so that a company that requires employees to sign in to their e-mail by putting a fingerprint against something can implement that with Google Apps. You can also lock all of the applications to be encrypted and make it such that it's all talking over HTTPS, so that the level of encryption we have for your e-mail and chat sessions is the same you would use for a stock transaction.

IDGNS: How are you doing in terms of mobile access to Google Apps?

Sheth: It's definitely an area of focus. We have a pretty good reach for Gmail right now with the Gmail mobile application and Gmail mobile browser experience. We're continuing to think across all the applications and figure out how to make the experience better and better on mobile devices. In general, mobile access is an extremely important thing to Google because in so many parts of the world, more people access the Internet by mobile devices than they do by a laptop or PC.

IDGNS: Are you interested in including vertical applications in Google Apps, maybe as options to customers in certain industries?

Sheth: Our forte and user benefit is in applications that have a very broad appeal, especially within collaboration. That's where you will see a lot of the emphasis. That said, I've been pleasantly surprised about the amount of development that has happened on top of Google Apps since its release. We want to continue encouraging developers to take our platform and a lot of our core components and extend them.

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