Google Apps, Intermedia or Office 365?

Google Apps, Intermedia or Office 365?

As mission-critical applications go, email and calendaring rank right at the top of most business’ lists.  If they’re inaccessible, unreliable or don’t serve the needs of the business, reduced productivity is the best you can hope for.  We’ve seen heads roll due to bad decisions on this front and watched large corporations make major course corrections when things didn’t go as planned.

Everything would be better if we moved this application to the cloud, right?  You’d certainly like to think so, and there is certainly precedent for believing this to be true without doing a lot of research.  We can start with the obvious: outsourcing a task to someone who can do it better and more efficiently than you can tends to make sense.  Echo simply doesn’t get requests to build out the kind of air- and power-conditioned secure server rooms we used to, and for good reason: it doesn’t make financial sense when you can share someone else’s highly-available infrastructure for less money.  It doesn’t stop there: at the application level, I can pretty much assure you that the number of full-time system administrators per mailbox is dramatically lower at a hosted Exchange provider than it ever will be at your company if it hosts its own mail, and that’s even if you pay our crack team at Echo Technology Solutions to do it.  Finally, who doesn’t know someone whose organization’s mail is now hosted on Google Apps or some outsourced Microsoft Exchange platform?  We all do.

But what drives these decisions?  Why one provider over another?

Echo sees three sane paths when it comes to moving your mail and calendaring to the cloud: Google Apps, Intermedia’s hosted Exchange offering and Microsoft’s Office 365.  We have moved organizations large and small to each of them – and sometimes from them.  By now we’ve almost seen it all, and we’ve got a pretty good handle on what works and what doesn’t.

The first thing we feel you need to decide is whether Google Apps will work for your organization.  Google Apps is a popular choice for a good reason, particularly with larger organizations: it’s reliable, secure and inexpensive, and is a known quantity to almost everyone.  The Google suite of applications serves the most common needs of most organizations, so long as those needs can be met with applications delivered within a web browser or to a smartphone.  But please – and we cannot emphasize this point enough – please do not expect the same experience in Outlook as you are accustomed to with your Exchange server.  In fact, we’d recommend that unless you can make peace with the notion of only using the web client and the native mail and calendar applications in your smartphone or tablet, you scuttle plans to move to Google Apps and look at hosted Exchange.  We’d be happy to discuss some use cases with you, most of which revolve around the way administrative assistants are accustomed to working.

If you’ve decided that you need hosted Exchange, the next question is: do you use the largest and most competent of the hosted Exchange providers (Intermedia), or is there a case to be made for Microsoft’s Exchange Online, a part of their Office 365 offering?  Intermedia’s marketing department has responded with what to us looks like a lot of smoke and mirrors in a nervous attempt to stave off the inevitable growth of Microsoft’s native Exchange offering.  In reality, the two offerings are quite different: Intermedia is rather high-touch with limited integration capabilities, and Microsoft is quite do-it-yourself with rather extensive integration capabilities.

Intermedia’s offering revolves around a service model that makes Intermedia your systems administrator for all things Exchange.  This means a fairly limited set of available options are made available to you via their “User Pilot” interface: user adds and deletes, backups to PST, ActiveSync and BlackBerry provisioning.  Migrations are done by their concierge service, which provisions mailboxes based on exports you provide from your Active Directory, then seeds mailboxes in the cloud prior to a cut-over across your user base, followed by a synchronization of changes that have happened since the initial seed.  Users must reconnect to their new mailboxes and this requires a certain amount of user education and hand-holding on your part.  Passwords can be synchronized from your Active Directory to Intermedia, but only when they are changed and the change is intercepted by an agent you install on every domain controller.  If things go wrong, it’s on Intermedia to fix it: your responsibility is to reconfigure end-users with new Outlook profiles and connect their mobile devices.  Once mailboxes and groups are migrated to Intermedia, they’re modified at Intermedia and are rather divorced from Active Directory.  These are aspects shared by most hosted Exchange providers; only Office 365 has proven any different.

Microsoft’s offering revolves around a service model that makes you the systems admin when it comes to configuring things and makes migration something you need to do or pay someone to do.  Echo has primarily migrated clients in a “hybrid” model which leverages some of the features unique to Office 365, notably the fact that a live synchronization tool keeps accounts and groups based in your Active Directory, synchronizes passwords whether they have been changed yet or not, and synchronizes changes made to users and groups in both directions whether they are made from on-premise management tools like Active Directory Users and Computers or your Exchange Management Console, or they are made from Office 365’s administration portal.  That may sound nice, but by far the best aspect of a migration to Office 365 is that it can be done as a remote mailbox move, which means the user stays connected to their mailbox until the administrator is ready to finalize the migration, at which point the user simply closes and opens their Outlook and is connected to their migrated mailbox.  If it sounds too good to be true, you should realize that sharing free/busy information between cloud and on-premise works but is limited to some basic functionality, and there is no such thing as permissions between cloud and on-premise, which may mean you’re moving those administrative assistants alongside all of the execs they assist.  Again, we’d be happy to discuss the use cases.

In short, each of these three offerings can work well for some businesses, but there are serious differences in functionality that need to be considered.  We hope this has given you a couple of ideas and raised a few questions.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us to help you make the right decision when it comes to making this application work better for you.