Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Roadblocks in Deploying Google Docs: CRUD and “ilities”

This is the second in a series of posts about roadblocks organizations face in deploying Google Apps for Education (GAFE). In the last post I went into depth about the FUD that circulates around Google Apps Deployments. In this post I will discuss CRUD, which are the reasonable Concerns, Reservations, Unknowns, and Decisions (along with some of the “ilities”) that emerge when choosing to use Google Apps for Education.

As the person that feels the heat for anything that goes wrong with educational technology in our district, from PEBKAC errors to full network meltdowns, there is CRUD that goes along with any hardware, software, or cloud based deployment. A big part of my job is to be paranoid and critical about technology until I can be reasonably assured that it will work reliably, to the point of invisibility, to my schools. Although few products are actually invisible, to the level of a classroom chalkboard, my goal is that they all end up there. With that in mind I am always worried about many of the the “ilities” (accountability, sustainability, reliability, supportability, operability...) with any products we choose. There reaches a point with any potential technology solution where there is a reasonable level of CRUD that you will be able to live with before making a choice to adopt a product long-term.

As the person that led my district down the path to use and invest time, money, and resources into using GAFE I wanted to share what Concerns, Reservations, Unknowns, and Decisions we have faced along the way, and in some cases, the “ilities” we are managing.

The scariest “ility” is accountability which commonly starts and ends with fiscal responsibility. Obviously the low cost (free), and therefore associated risk of initial financial investment, makes GAFE easier to accept. The agreement that we signed with Google locked us into the core products being free for life (FAQ #4), with the understanding that other parts of the product may come at a cost later on down the road (as is the case with every software product we buy). Yes, there is a risk that GAFE will come at a cost later on and if that happens we will evaluate the cost and value of the product. We do this with every one of the technology solutions we use and have had to make similar decisions with operating systems, desktop publishing products, and enterprise software in the last 4 years.

In the role of the technology leader being responsible for our decisions goes far beyond the initial cost of a product. The total costs of ownership (TCO) includes investing time and energy in researching, choosing, negotiating, deploying, maintaining, and training; all of which are often more costly than the initial investment. When we considered this for GAFE the price point made some of the TCO concerns more palatable. However there were other worries, starting with the fact that nobody on our staff even knew how to use GAFE and at the time we chose GAFE, in 2007, there were not a lot of other schools using it which added to the risk. We offset this concern by leaveraging nearby Northwestern University as a resource and tapping into 3rd party support through SADA Systems. Now there are entire states “Going Google”, millions of users, and excellent communities (like ours in Illinois) working to help each other deploy and use GAFE.

We are currently saving $35K/yr on student email and $55K/yr on staff email by using GAFE for email and message security over our previous products. We are choosing to pay Google 16K/yr for message archiving and discovery (to meet legal requirements) which results in a net saving of 74K/yr. At the end of our 4 year agreement we will have saved nearly $300K that has been reinvested mostly into network infrastructure that will have a long term positive impact on this district. One of the only associated costs of GAFE that is required is bandwidth. This savings from using GAFE along with the reinvestment in infrastructure has improved the sustainability of GAFE in our district.

Google also continues to grow and develop GAFE at no cost to us. Along with these changes comes the risk on not knowing what is coming. There are reasonable concerns that changes that come are things we do not llike, similar to the encrypted search change earlier this year. However Google has shown that they are responsive to their EDU users’ needs. This is an area that we continue to monitor closely and provide constructive feedback to Google about EDU needs and requirements.

One of the steps my team and I always talk about before choosing a technology solution is the cost of leaving the product if it becomes a problem. Unlike many other software companies Google provides resources through its “Data Liberation Front” to help you take your data and leave if you want to go. Once you are gone they will delete all of your data (Privacy FAQ #1). However, a decision to leave Google becomes increasingly difficult as more students and staff use it and as we invest more time and effort in training people to use it effectively. I don’t see a reason why we would leave Google, at this time, but at least I know that if we did we could take our data with us.

One of our major concerns when we chose Google was operability. Some of the more established enterprise products seem to work with everything and finding people that can integrate solutions is very easy. Google is relatively new to the enterprise setting, so we had concerns about getting help when we needed it and the ability to develop on Google’s platforms. We also had initial concerns that there were not a lot of established training resources on the market and we would have to create a lot of training material from scratch.

Google now has a marketplace with many other applications that integrate with GAFE, has built on their platform, and has released many API’s that allow us to build on the GAFE platform. Since going Google in 2007 we have had no problem getting help through the support tab in the GAFE control panel. For those that have not seen the GAFE control panel, here is a portion of it:








We are provided with the usual online forums and help center links, however we also are provided with a phone number to call and links to a help desk along with personalized identifiers that link back to our accounts. We have used these features several time over the past few years and always have received prompt quality support. Google’s reliability has been incredible and blows away the level of service we could provide in-house (even David Spangler, our Network Manager will verify that statement) Sometimes it is just easier to find the information yourself or talk to someone else in a similar setting, which is why the state level agreements and user’s groups have also helped in this area.

Google has also begun a certified trainer program which is now creating a listing of individuals and organizations that can help in deployment and training. We have tapped into these resources and are now part of the community of trainers which has unlocked a massive supply of training material to us. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google continues to collect, collate, improve upon, and publish training materials going forward.

So is there CRUD with Google Apps EDU?

Yes.

However, there are questions like this with every product and it is our responsibility to raise these questions and look for potential problems. There are other questions and concerns that come along with GAFE, that for the sake of time and space, I have not addressed here. Please add your GAFE CRUD to the comments and the readers and I will respond to them. All we can do is help manage these concerns. because reasonable questions will always be present as long as it is our job to discover and prepare for all of the possible “crudilities”.

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