The Guardian adopts Google Apps

The frosty reception with which software-as-service (SaaS) was met in its early years is visibly thawing. In certain sectors, adoption has grown from a trickle to a steady stream.

The media is one such sector. Hot on the heels of the Telegraph, the Guardian Media Group this week revealed that it has made the switch, implementing Google’s online application suite that includes email, calendar, document editing and collaboration software throughout the organisation.

The decision to switch from a license-based model to Google’s hosted solution was made during a major reorganisation and integration of print and online operations, says the company’s technology director Andy Beale.

“We were looking for a system that would address our needs for a more productive and collaborative workplace,” he explains. “We looked at a lot of enterprise wiki-type products, and also what IBM was doing with its Lotus products. But we really just decided that the key, de facto things were office and email, and Google was a model people were familiar with.”

Beale’s team have left existing tools such as Microsoft Office alone for the interim, “in case people need to do a 2000-word, highly formatted report or a very complex PowerPoint presentation – although we’ve started to migrate some of our Mac users to Open Office”.

Adoption rates have been high: “A total of 70% of all user accounts have been accessed, and 300 individual [collaboration] sites set up since we launched in August,” Beale says.

Users needed little encouragement to make the change, and support requirements have been minimal, he adds. “Adoption happened by itself with no form of official training. We took an evangelism approach, setting up lunchtime drop in sessions in the canteen to raise awareness, with a lot of Google branding and prizes and giveaways.”

Advance experience with the products helped, he says: journalists covering the Beijing Games remotely found the collaborative elements of Google Docs highly useful, which led to strong top-down buy-in.

“We went from saying ‘this is the thing we’re going to do’ to actually doing it in a relatively short space of time,” Beale says.

“One of the joys of it was cutting out a lot of the implementation stuff. You just kind of switch it on. The only real implementation was the email migration, which was more complicated, but we’re currently happy doing that in-house with support from Google.”

One of the project’s major successes, says Beale, is the amount of time it has freed up for the IT department.

“That’s been the really big prize. We’re doing an analysis of our helpdesk calls at the moment to gauge the impact [Lotus] calls had on our helpdesk, and we expect a very, very significant decrease in calls with the move to Google Mail. Google Docs has had less of a dramatic effect so far,” he admits, “as it’s seen as an additional tool.”

A secondary benefit has been through the implementation of Google’s messaging security software, which the search giant acquired when it bought Postini.

“That has already had an effect on our admin overhead: people are self-serving their own blacklists and message retrieval, which used to be a constant call on our resources.”

And while he’s unwilling to talk in figures, Beale says he is confident that the new set up “will pay for itself in a relatively short period of time, in comparison to our license costs for Lotus”.

The decision to make the SaaS switch did require some careful consideration. Beale acknowledges there was concern over the “fairly sensitive source information” which would now be travelling through Google’s systems rather than the Guardian’s. “Our ability to control who has access to that information is quite important,” he says. “We did consider that carefully, but the mail product gives us total control over deletion and retention and therefore we were comfortable we were in control of the data.”

Another concern was the storage and transmission of sensitive information in Google’s servers located in the US. That country’s controversial Patriot Act makes all data stored on US shores liable to inspection – arguably contravening the EU’s Data Protection Act.

“We did look at that,” Beale says. “My honest answer is that, as an industry, the issue is still not yet clear, which makes seeking advice on those sort of things quite hard. We did a risk assessment on it, including information security, and we felt [problems] were either mitigated or of a low-enough likelihood [to be acceptable]. But I would accept that this is an area which the industry has not yet completely got to grips with.”

For a major publisher, the relationship with Google is a complicated one. It is not only an important medium through which readers find their way to The Guardian‘s online content, but also one of the world’s largest advertising platforms.

“That is something we talked about,” Beale admits. “We have 20 different relationships with Google, and some of them are fonder than others, particularly [since] we write about them in our newspapers.”

But the implementation team was upfront with Google on the issue, Beale says, and was satisfied that the company’s enterprise operation was well established and stood on its own. “It has not been an issue, but that’s not to say it won’t be in the future,” Beale acknowledges. “Google is one of the more complicated companies to deal with because they do a lot of stuff.”

The adoption of such a vastly different model to that which many CIOs and their companies are used to comes with challenges, Beale explains, and these can require compromise.

"Accept right upfront that this is a service and you’re not buying some software,” he advises. "You don’t get to choose and customise it, you’re buying a service, so treat it as such."

"Secondly, it’s never too early to get your security team involved if you’re going to do something like this. Because even though you might be ultimately comfortable with the security profile [of the project], it is quite a big leap from the traditional model of keeping your data close to you.”

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