Corporate e-mail in the cloud, Google vs. Microsoft Azure

E-mail is the third rail of enterprise IT operations. You can mess up elsewhere, but bring down people's e-mail and you'll start getting irate calls literally in seconds. Manesh Patel knows those risks well, but that didn't stop the senior vice president and CIO at Sanmina-SCI Corp. from stepping off the Microsoft Outlook/Exchange platform and moving the company's 16,000 users into Google's cloud -- thereby running the risk of interrupting users' e-mail, even if just temporarily, in the process. The cost savings were simply too good to pass up.

Two years ago, the San Jose-based contract manufacturer relied on stable, up-to-date versions of Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook and Exchange Server to handle its e-mail needs. Then, after a lengthy analysis and pilot, Sanmina-SCI shut down its 100 Exchange servers, traded Outlook for a browser as the primary e-mail client and migrated all of its e-mail users worldwide onto Google Apps for Business suite. This cloud-based service now delivers Google Inc.'s Gmail e-mail offering, plus calendaring and contact management services to Sanmina-SCI's workers.

Why fix something that wasn't broken? "A lot of people thought I was crazy," Patel admits, but the operational cost savings were just too big to ignore. By moving from an on-premises Exchange architecture to Google Apps for Business Premier Edition, Patel cut costs by more than $1.9 million a year.

Moving from an on-premises model to a cloud-based model presents its own concerns; moving at the same time to a new e-mail platform with an entirely different user interface and feature set is an even bigger step. Still, from Patel's perspective, it made good sense to migrate from an enterprise-class on-premises e-mail system like Exchange onto the cloud-based Gmail architecture, despite Gmail's roots as a free, consumer-based application. Not only does Google Apps for Business cost less than an on-premises Exchange Server system, but it has a "high level of functionality - 90% to 95% of what we were looking for," Patel says.

Patel succeeded with the transition by getting executive buy-in early and doing the rollout very quickly, over a 90-day period, rather than going through a prolonged migration process. He did, however, face some resistance to change. The Gmail interface, for example, organizes messages with tags instead of folders, and while accessing Gmail using a browser as the local client software worked better than Outlook for some tasks, it wasn't nearly as robust for others, such as dragging and dropping. He expects those differences to go away in the next 12 months as browsers begin to support new features in the emerging HTML 5 specification. Patel sold the project by touting the potential cost savings and the benefits of moving from a fixed cost infrastructure to a variable cost service. "The financial guys loved that," he says. But he also had other motives. One was to tap into the flexibility and continuous innovation that Google's cloud-based model offers. The other was to develop a "culture of collaboration" that would support ad-hoc, informal teams of customers and business partners. Google Apps, with an array of services ranging from Gmail to Google Docs, was well suited to the task, Patel says.

Patel didn't have problems with calendaring, but he says managing expectations is critical -- and so is training. In a transition from Exchange to Google Apps, he recommends one-on-one hands-on training with executives and their staffs. "They tend to be our toughest customers," he says, because they're very heavy users of e-mail and calendaring -- and they don't always have time to attend group training classes. In addition to classroom training, Sanmina-SCI also offered self-service training and 24/7 help desk support.

Some large enterprises are seriously considering jumping from Exchange to Gmail, or already have. Here's why.

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