It isn't about to end Microsoft Office's ownership of the business productivity desktop, but Google's announcement this week that the City of Edmonton is switching to its web-based applications is another sign that cloud-based services continue their march into mainstream use.
Edmonton's move makes it the first major municipal government in Canada to adopt Google's email and calendaring applications. Unlike traditional productivity applications that are installed directly on individual computers or networks, these apps are accessible from any browser and free up the IT department from being responsible for installation, license management, storage and support.
The subscription-based model — companies generally pay per user per month — simplifies budgeting and removes the need for IT to plan for capital investments and upgrades every few years. This approach also opens up greater capability to smaller organizations that might otherwise not have the systems and resources to deploy the latest software.
A number of Edmonton city employees are already piloting enterprise versions of Google's email and calendar apps, and the just-announced contract will kickstart a process that will eventually see the city's six departments, 31 branches and over 10,000 staff — including 3,000 who currently have no city-provided email access — making the switch. The project will be based on a phased transition, with employees shifting to messaging and scheduling first, and the full suite of Google productivity applications by the end of 2013.
Going beyond free
On the surface, online applications like Google's may look similar to the free versions available to individual users, but they differ significantly, often behind the scenes. The enterprise-class versions include a number of additional features, such as greater online storage, helpdesk support, centralized IT management, guaranteed uptime, and greater integration with existing messaging services like Research In Motion's BlackBerry and Microsoft's Outlook.
While the city may be blazing the trail for Canadian municipal governments, it's hardly the first large organization in the province to join the cloud party. The University of Alberta is midway through transitioning over 140,000 faculty, staff and student accounts to Google Apps for Education.
The school expects to free up resources previously dedicated to managing accounts over 80 separate email servers. Beyond the up-front and longer-term cost savings, planners also expect the adoption of the full suite of online apps to spur levels of collaboration simply not possible with conventionally installed software.
A growing trend
Outside of academia, cities as diverse as Orlando, Pittsburgh, and Zapopan, Mexico have also made the switch to Google's enterprise-focused apps. Broad-based adoption validates growing interest in cloud-based solutions: In its recent survey of 573 companies in 18 countries, Avanade Inc. said 60 percent of respondents called cloud computing their top priority in IT for 2012.
Despite the growing popularity of cloud-based solutions, the market has been dogged by a significant amount of fear, uncertainty and doubt — often called FUD — that has kept a number of organizations on the sidelines:
Privacy breach. Unlike self-managed environments, where corporate IT physically owns and manages the servers where data is stored, cloud providers keep customer data in shared data centers, often on shared machines.
The fear: Clients can easily see anyone else's data.
The reality: The security capabilities of a dedicated cloud provider are typically orders of magnitude more sophisticated that the average IT department. While no technology is perfectly secure, a dedicated facility built and maintained by a company whose sole business is web services is easily more secure than a far flung network of servers thrown together by an already overworked IT team.
Regulatory exposure. Legislation such as the U.S. Patriot Act can make data stored on servers within American borders vulnerable to search and seizure by law enforcement there.
The fear: Even if you're Canadian, you could find your inbox or documents swept up in criminal proceedings far from home.
The reality: As providers build increasingly global infrastructure, contracts can be amended to ensure your data stays within your borders.
Advertisement distraction. Many free-to-the-consumer cloud services are financed by context-sensitive ads. Corporate IT doesn't necessarily want users to stare at ads during the workday, and doesn't want to have to pay for the additional bandwidth these ads might consume.
The fear: Corporate users will stare at ads all day, while IT will be on the hook for the additional bandwidth and storage.
The reality: Most subscription-based, corporate-focused services are ad-free. If they aren't, it's an easy point to build into subsequent negotiations.
Performance and stability issues. Cloud solutions have long been dogged by concerns they're simply not as fast or as robust as locally-installed software.
The fear: Productivity tanks when you lose connectivity, and the web is a slow, feature-limited way to get work done.
The reality: Most services can easily handle being offline as well as on, and increasingly sophisticated coding coupled with ever higher access speeds is rapidly closing the feature gap.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org