System integration is the process of linking together different computer systems and software applications physically or functionally. From end users’ perspectives, integration allows them to work with different applications or systems with minimal keystrokes. With proper integration, users save valuable time transferring information from one system (email, for instance) to another system (like their calendars). Is integration like this available in an environment that relies on cloud computing? Let’s break it down.
Microsoft Online Services
In most large enterprises, Microsoft Windows is the de-facto operating system. From the perspective of end users working in a Windows shop, the standard Microsoft Windows interface will be more comfortable and productive. With Microsoft’s cloud-based Online Services, the online apps follow the Microsoft User Interface (UI) guidelines of their desktop counterparts, ensuring that users will not get lost maneuvering through the UI. Thanks to those uniform interfaces, the learning curve is practically nothing for most computer literate users.
Let’s now zoom into some common business applications, and see how they can integrate with the business environment.
Microsoft Exchange, the messaging server in the Windows ecosystem, ensures that user messages in sync across all platforms, including Microsoft Office Outlook on the desktop, Web-based email from the browser, and mobile devices. Competing platforms that rely on the POP and IMAP protocols don’t always offer the same sort of close synchronization Exchange provides.
With the introduction of Office Sharepoint Workspace 2010, we are going to see a huge difference in how we collaborate using Sharepoint Online. With the move from Sharepoint 2007 to Sharepoint 2010, tight integration will be delivered through the Office Sharepoint Workspace 2010. Users will be able to synchronize their files from the cloud to their PCs and work on them offline. For this to work, customers will need to acquire Office 2010 Professional, which comes with Sharepoint Workspace 2010. ￼
Instant Messaging has changed the way we communicate with colleagues and do business. If we need a quick favor, or if we have a quick question, we fire up our IM and ping our colleagues. With Office Communicator, organizations gain the standard instant messaging capabilities most users expect while ensuring that compliance requirements are met with enterprise archiving features.
Office Communicator runs across multiple platforms, ensuring that most operating systems running on both public and private PCs are covered. Office Communicator also works tightly with Exchange/Email and Live Meeting, making it simple to send emails, check on the availability of colleagues and even schedule Web conferencing with ease.
With Google Apps’ unbeatable price, lots of budget conscious businesses are moving towards Google Apps. Reviews everywhere gives Google Apps a thumbs up, so let’s give it a try and see how it fares in integration.
Cloud computing is about having data hosted on the cloud, and being able to access it on the go. Email is no longer a standalone application: With enterprise computing, email ties together with calendar, tasks and other collaboration system. One pain point with Google’s Gmail (and most other email servers) is that calendars and tasks don’t sync back up to the cloud easily from the email client.
Google Sites is a very attractive feature for small businesses, allowing users to log on to share files, participate in discussions and submit surveys by just connecting to their organization’s Google Sites. It’s a great and inexpensive way of collaborating with colleagues.
Gtalk is one of the most used instant messaging applications, thanks in large part to its simplicity. Whenever users log on to Gmail, they’re able to chat with their colleagues, without even installing the Gtalk client. Customers or partners’ contacts can also be added into their Gtalk.
Verdict – Who is better?
With so many options, companies will need to weigh their options carefully before contracting with a vendor. Just to make your life easier, let me break them down:
Exchange beats Gmail hands down in terms of integration. No matter what platform you are on (mobile, Web, email client), you will be seeing an almost consistent interface, with the ability to search and locate emails easily. Tasks that you have added through your phone will sync with the Exchange Server, pushing it to the email client when you get back to the office. Google’s apps come close, but often force users to cobble together a collection of apps with uneven support for the protocols Google Apps depend on.
Google Sites is great for small businesses that need just a simple site user collaboration. However, Google Sites is lacking in some customizability. For medium to large businesses, Google Sites won’t always fit the bill. That’s where Sharepoint shines, but its price is substantial.
Gtalk is good for small businesses without any compliance considerations. Gtalk is not usable if management wants to control or set policies on IM-based communication. Office Communicator (with Office Communications Server running on the backend), however, can monitor and filter instant messages, allowing management and IT personnel to guarantee compliance.
If budget is not an issue, Microsoft Online’s solution is better suited for organizations that need control, flexibility and tight integration with their systems. Its client-side applications work with data in the cloud while also maintaining a Web-based suite of applications to ensure that users can still work wherever they are. Google Apps is generally well suited for small companies. Without robust support for local computing, Google Apps provides little recourse for users if they lose their network connectivity for whatever reason. Since Google prefers to concentrate on its Web interfaces and leave local client functionality to third parties, integration with local applications isn’t always transparent or simple.