Going to Google Apps: A TTW Guest Post

by: Robin Hastings

Information Technology Manager at the Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City, Missouri


This all started because the employees at the library at which I work, the Missouri River Regional Library, were complaining about all the spam in their email. As the Information Technology Manager, part of my job is managing the email server we had – which used to be a server in our server room running Exchange 2003 with Outlook Web Access enabled, so people could use both Outlook and web-based email, whichever they chose. Trying to keep spam out of an Exchange server is difficult and/or expensive – this was something we were really struggling with! As an option, I began looking at Google Apps For Domains, a service I use for one of my personal domains. Google’s spam controls are impressive, to say the least, and the service level has always been pretty impressive. The more I poked around in Google Apps, the more I liked it!

I started looking at the details of Google Apps and began working up a case to sell it to my director. I pretty quickly discovered that the library, since it is not an actual 501(c)3 entity, wasn’t eligible for the educational version of the service. Google offers 3 different versions, the free version (250 accounts, 6GB of email space, no service level guarantees, ads with your emails), the educational version (free, some ads on emails, 25GB of space, 99% uptime guarantee for email) and the premier version ($50/account/year, no ads, 25GB of space, 99% uptime guarantee, conference room/resource scheduling, postini email policy management and recovery, etc). The education edition is basically the same as the premier, except that it’s free and doesn’t include the Postini email stuff.

Google provides a handy chart (http://www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/admins/editions.html) detailing the differences between free and premier editions, one that I consulted frequently as I was working up my financial case to go to Google Apps. Once I realized we were going to have to pay for our version of Google Apps, I really hit that chart hard to make my business case for switching.

Since we were in a year that included a new email server and server software in the budget, I could show that Google would be just a few dollars ($80 or so) a year more expensive over a 3-year life span than Exchange 2007/Outlook with spam control software added on. After I made the budget/feature/begging case to my director, and he approved it, I started playing. I began by uploading all of our accounts to Google via a spreadsheet in CSV format. That was fun and got me started – until I realized that I couldn’t pay for all of our accounts at once because all they take are credit cards and all of our cards that are given to each manager have a $2000 limit. Our total bill was $3250. This meant that I had to delete about half of the accounts, pay for the ones I had still in the system and wait 5 days to pay for the rest of the accounts with another manager’s card and reupload them (after you delete an account name it can’t be recreated for at least 5 days). Big “oops” #1!

By July 24th all the accounts were paid for and all of the accounts were in place. I took a couple of days to get myself familiar with the system, create FAQs on our staff wiki and start working out the timeline for deployment. On July 25th, I invited staff to log into the system and start to “poke around” to get familiar as well. On July 28th I started face-to-face training sessions for staff to explain the system and answer questions – at least one every day. I scheduled 7 for the week of the 28th and one on Aug. 4th – the day we went live.

The staff were very receptive to the training – they showed up, they asked questions and they seemed to be very willing to change. I had one staff member who informed me that she didn’t like Outlook, but she didn’t like change, either. After the training session, however, she felt far more comfortable with the change and far more positive about it. Wiki-based FAQs and frequent emails updating staff on what is going on “behind the scenes” are critical – but nothing beats real-time, real-live training! In each session, I covered each of the Google services we’d be getting access to (Sites, Docs, Calendar, Email, Start Page and Chat) with a very quick tour of each of them. This took about a half-hour. After that, I opened the floor for questions about Google Apps, the process of the changeover or whatever else came up. Some of my sessions were 1/2 hour long – and that was it. One lasted for an hour and 15 minutes. Everyone had a chance to voice their objections and get answers to their concerns, though!

The actual changeover was fairly smooth – I used the feature that allowed me to use an administrator account that I sat up and then gave it read access to all the mailboxes. With that, I started the migration at 5:15pm on Saturday night, doing all of the full time folks first. When that finished (at 1am Sunday morning), I set the part time employee’s emails to go and went to bed. When I woke up in the morning, it was done. All of the email from all of the staff at MRRL was there… except for 3 staff members who were at the very end of the migration and hit up against the backup that I forgot to turn off for the night. This pretty much hosed the Exchange server and kept those 3 people from getting their emails immediately.

Monday morning, when I got to work, I sent my Computer Support guru, Nikki, over to the administration offices building to help folks who might need it and I started on a round of checking on staff in the main building. The changeover was pretty smooth. Most people chose to use the web-based email interface – very few required the Outlook program any more. Everyone logged on successfully and most people were very positive about the change. Since that first morning, I’ve spent some time sending out daily “tips & tricks” emails to the staff, uploading contacts and calendar data from Outlook to Google Apps and helping with contact management and other little issues that cropped up because of the differences between Gmail and Outlook. The responses from staff, however, have been very positive. I’ve had a couple of people tell me this was the smoothest technological change they’ve experienced (didn’t seem that smooth to me – 3 emails left off the migration and a few niggling issues with getting Outlook and Gmail to play nicely – but I suppose those were isolated incidents…) and almost everyone has mentioned how much easier Gmail is than Outlook to use and understand. The staff are enjoying the ability to chat with each other and are helping each other find new features and capabilities that are now available. And, of course, we are all enjoying the lack of spam in our inboxes!