November 29, 2010 By Matt Williams
Budget cuts are driving governments to be increasingly open to cloud computing, so many are watching for which vendor establishes the best track record. Cloud computing typically involves paying a third-party provider to host software on servers not owned or maintained by the software purchaser. Numerous cloud computing providers are competing in the market, but Google versus Microsoft is the cloud clash most are watching. Government Technology sought perspective from a Microsoft and Google cloud customer, both of whom transitioned their e-mail service to cloud computing.
Randy Paul, IT director for Klamath County, Ore., chose Microsoft’s cloud as the path of least resistance — something he views as a point of pride. He considered Microsoft’s cloud to be comparable to Google’s in most ways, except with Microsoft, he didn’t need to train users on a new application. The user experience on Microsoft’s cloud applications feels virtually the same, he said, as the company’s traditional in-house hosted applications.
“When I come to my desktop at work and go into e-mail, I’m going into Outlook 2010,” Paul said. “It’s going to have the ribbon across the top. It’s going to have the file menu and all of the things I’m used to right there. With the Outlook Web App 2010, I still have the ribbon and everything. I just step right into it because it’s the same application.”
Needing to protect such comforts may seem silly to tech-savvy users, but the time lost by responding to end-user complaints about new applications is very real to Paul. He said he recently battled a barrage of complaints over an every-90-day password change policy — something employees in most other industries accept as a standard. Running an eight-person IT organization, Paul said he didn’t have time or staff to spare for additional training. He considered avoiding needless training a good stewardship of tax dollars.
“Using these applications is secondary to [our users],” Paul said. “They’re just trying to get something done. The smoother we can make that for them, the more productive they’re going to be.”
With each new tool he introduced to the cloud, it likely would have required a new cycle of training. The Microsoft option eliminated that extra work, Paul said.
He cautioned that using Microsoft’s cloud would require some governments to revise their password policies, because the company requires customers to use its password policy. “It’s basically an industry standard policy — eight characters, upper[case] and lowercase — the sort of thing that most people are using anyway.”
Changing policies wasn’t a nuisance because Paul said he was planning to change the county’s policy. “I didn’t have a particular issue with it because it was a decent password policy, and it was something we needed to be doing anyway.”
For Microsoft’s cloud e-mail services, Klamath County pays an annual fee of $66 per user for its 467 users.
When Orlando, Fla., solicited cloud computing services for e-mail, city staff knew they would be retraining 3,000 end-users regardless of whether they went with Google or Microsoft. Previously Orlando used IBM’s Lotus Notes for e-mail, not Microsoft’s Outlook, so Microsoft lacked the advantage of user continuity it had with Klamath County.
Orlando chose Google, which charges $45.50 per user annually, because city officials believe it offered more functions on its browser-access version than Microsoft’s, according to Rosa Akhtarkhavari, client support manager for Orlando. Microsoft’s cloud solution comes with a “fat client” version, which is downloaded to the desktop, saves e-mails to the hard drive and is viewable offline. Employees use the browser access or “thin client” version remotely. With Google, employees use the browser-access version in every setting. An application called Gears saves the e-mails to the computer’s hard drive for offline viewing.
Akhtarkhavari said Google’s more expansive browser functionality was more attractive because the majority of Orlando’s police and fire employees — 50 percent of the city’s work force — work in a mobile capacity. Fewer functions on Microsoft’s browser-access version wasn’t a major issue for Klamath County because roughly 10 percent of its employees routinely used the browser access. Paul said that in his experience, using fat-client applications enabled more responsive commands than browser-access applications. “Thin clients seem to have a bit of a delay,” Paul said.
He said this was probably because the fat clients’ software is installed directly on the user’s desktop, while commands on a browser-access version is processed in the cloud. He said many of his end-users likely wouldn’t tolerate the delayed functionality of many browser-access applications, whether they’re using e-mail, spreadsheets or word processing.
“Putting me on a hosted spreadsheet — that would be fine,” Paul said. “Putting my people who do our financial payroll system on it, they would kill me in a heartbeat.”
The fact that Google houses servers overseas creates a problem for Orlando’s criminal justice e-mails because city regulations prohibit them from residing on servers in other countries. To eliminate this problem, Google is creating a government cloud facility in the United States. In the meantime, Orlando criminal justice e-mails are handled by separate e-mail services provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Akhtarkhavari said acclimating employees to Google e-mail wasn’t a problem, but it did require a multifaceted “change-management” campaign. Preparation involved training sessions for administrative employees, public relations messaging and a how-to manual targeted at end-users called the Google Guide.
“We have gone through enterprise implementations in the past, and we applied lessons learned to this implementation,” Akhtarkhavari said. "I believe it went well.”
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