Migration challenges await in City of Boston's transition to Gmail

Migration challenges await in City of Boston's transition to Gmail

Continuing with the theme of competition, last week's news that the City of Boston has decided to migrate from Exchange to Gmail as the basis for email services for 20,000 employees must have warmed the hearts of the folks in Mountain View, if only because what’s rare is wonderful. Large organizations migrating from Exchange to Gmail are rarer than the other way around, at least in my experience. But perhaps this is only because people who want to move to Gmail wouldn’t care to consult my opinion!

It’s not just Exchange either as the Bostonians are going all-in with Google to embrace Google Docs and Google cloud storage. The estimate cost for the migration project is reported at $800,000 with the purported payoff being a cost reduction of some $280,000 annually after the migration is complete. As reported by Paul Thurrott, the savings seem to work out at $2.50 per employee per month.

I thought that the reported comments about the decision by Matt Cain, a Gartner analyst, were interesting. First, “the number one reason that organizations are going to Google is price.”  I wonder whether this is based on comparing on-premises services versus cloud-based alternatives. I imagine that this is the case because the report went on to say that “and since Google updates its software via the Internet, which Microsoft only recently started doing with some of its products,it means clients won’t be working for years on outdated applications.”  These assertions certainly make it seem that Microsoft failed to press the case for Office 365 as effectively as Google advocated Gmail and Google Docs. Is it not curious that Gartner seem unaware that Microsoft has been updating Office 365 “via the Internet” since its release in June 2011?

Presumably the folks who made the decision to go with Google can explain why they ignored the obvious migration path to Office 365. Cost might have been an influence, but at $2.50 per employee per month, I doubt that it was the deciding factor. Even the doziest salesperson can find a way to close such a small gap. It would certainly be interesting to see the technical assessment of the offerings that were examined and to hear the justification for the choice.

In any case, the decision will be judged by the quality of the outcome. It might be that the migration will be done on time and to budget and that the predicted cost savings will be achieved on an ongoing basis for the next few years. It might also be that users embrace the Google products with joy and find that all of their current data has been moved across successfully. But every fibre of my experience tells me that things are unlikely to turn out quite so well.

As anyone who has been involved in moving on-premises infrastructure to the cloud will tell you, all manner of hidden costs lurk under the surface for the unaware administrator to blunder into. In this instance, I wonder what tools have been lined up to move existing information to Gmail and Google Docs. As a quick search reveals, Google and others provide migration tools for Exchange data. I have no knowledge of the quality of these tools, nor of their capabilities when faced with some of the weird and wonderful stuff that users squirrel away in their mailboxes. On the upside, 20,000 users is not a huge number and I imagine that any problems that are encountered will be worked through.

Two items that might be more problematic are clients and document fidelity. I’ve used Gmail for years and am still stuck dumb in bewilderment that its browser interface is still so bad when compared to Outlook Web App. Google tinkers with the interface continually and has introduced useful features such as offline access, but I still don’t like the interface all that much. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that users exist (and many of them) who consider Gmail to be an elegant and streamlined design. To each their own. But I hazard a guess that the majority of the Boston employees have considerable experience with Outlook and moving from Outlook to Gmail is problematic. It’s like chalk and cheese – two vastly different ways of working.

You can certainly connect Outlook to Gmail using IMAP as the access protocol and SMTP to send messages (and there are many articles to be read on the topic, like this one). I tried using Gmail like this for a while before concluding that the two products really don’t like each other all that much and gave up. But it’s possible that the Boston folks will be able to use this approach to enable people to continue using a client they know well while switching servers underneath.

With delicious irony, just around the time that the news of the Boston deal was appearing, Microsoft published a blog titled “Google Docs isn’t worth the gamble”. The basic point made in the post is that it is awfully difficult to assure document fidelity when moving from one platform to another and, in particular, Google Docs does not do a great job of interpreting some Microsoft document formats. There’s no news here as tens of thousands of software engineering years have been dedicated in attempting to make document contents translate perfectly from one format to another since the days of WordStar, WordPerfect, and Lotus Ami Pro. I’ll bet that the City of Boston has many complex documents that will need to be translated from Word, PowerPoint, and Excel to Google Docs. Whether the users who have to work with the resulting translations enjoy the outcome quite so much remains to be seen.

Microsoft and Google are locked together in competition for dominance in the cloud. You can expect more press releases lauding triumphs as one side or the other wins business from customers. However, press releases never tell the true story. In this instance, I wonder why those who made the decision in Boston ignored the simpler transition and vastly better document interoperability offered by Office 365. Was it simply cost, did the Google sales team do a brilliant job of selling, was Microsoft inept, or did some bias within the in-house IT team reveal itself in the assessment process. Of course, other possible reasons for the decision might exist too. For whatever reason, the 20,000 users will shortly enjoy an $800,000 migration process. Let’s hope that it goes well.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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