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Google Apps vs. Office 365

In choosing between Microsoft's and Google's cloud offerings, schools must weigh a raft of issues ranging from regulatory compliance to interoperability--and no one solution may fit the bill.

Google Apps Vs Microsoft Office 365

Tech giants Google and Microsoft are using free cloud-based e-mail and collaboration tools in a battle for the hearts and minds of college students, faculty, and staff. While both products--Google Apps for Education (GAE) and Microsoft's Office 365 Education--have similarities, a comparison of the two goes well beyond a Coke-versus-Pepsi-style taste test. Indeed, in deciding which platform to adopt, college administrators must weigh a surprising array of factors, including contract terms, regulatory issues, and the ability to integrate with their existing suite of applications.

This story appears in the May 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

Based on interviews with CIOs at institutions across the nation, Microsoft appears to have the edge when it comes to handling major institution-wide deployments. "I think the Microsoft offering is more enterprise-ready than Google's," notes Doug Herrick, CIO of Thomas Jefferson University (PA), an academic medical center in Philadelphia that uses a hybrid model, with students on GAE but faculty and staff on Office 365. Indeed, many CIOs see Google as more of a consumer-oriented company, and thus less equipped to handle the needs of the enterprise.

Contract Difficulties
Nowhere is this distinction clearer than in the area of contracts. Georgetown University (DC) transitioned its faculty and staff to GAE in March 2012, but the school's legal team had to work through multiple contract issues with Google, including regulatory concerns about moving data into the cloud. To make matters more difficult, Google changed the contract language during the process. "There was a lot of back and forth between our legal team and Google's," recalls CIO Lisa Davis. "It took a long time for our legal people to get comfortable with the language, and to get the right people at Google to engage."

Indeed, the difficulty of negotiating with Google could have derailed the Georgetown deployment. At times, Davis, who had been a customer of Microsoft in her previous role as a CIO in the federal government, was tempted to reconsider Microsoft. "Google's primary customer base has been a consumer market," she says, but notes that Google ultimately came through: "They worked with us to develop a more enterprise-focused service model appropriate for Georgetown."

Georgetown's experience with Google resonates with Barry Ribbeck, director of systems architecture, infrastructure, cloud strategies, and initiatives at Rice University (TX), which spent a considerable amount of time in negotiations with the company."It is difficult to negotiate when the contract keeps changing, has multiple reference documents, and a statement that all things can change without notice," he notes.

At a Glance: Georgia State

Georgia State University moved students to Microsoft's Live@edu (the precursor to Office 365) more than three years ago. "We tried to talk to Google, but they didn't want to negotiate anything about the contract," says J.L. Albert, associate provost and CIO. "I think some schools were naive at the time and just looked at the price and signed the contract." GSU has since moved all faculty and staff to Office 365 and is now transitioning its students as well.

Privacy Concerns
Rice ended up giving undergraduates the full GAE suite, but limited graduate students, staff, and faculty to GAE sans Gmail, citing the need to protect sensitive university data. Indeed, the issue of privacy and data protection can be a factor for administrators deciding between Google and Microsoft.

Some schools, for example, are uncomfortable with Google's broader business model, especially its emphasis on data-driven advertising. It's why the University of New Mexico never seriously considered GAE, says CIO Gil Gonzales. "We are a more conservative institution and we are concerned about exposing our data for other purposes, and we don't feel that Google has addressed that," he says. "Also, we want to work with a technology company, not a marketing company."

In spring 2012, UNM rolled out Office 365 to 36,000 students, providing them with cloud-based e-mail, 25 gigabytes of storage, calendaring, SharePoint, Word, Excel, text chat, video chat, and synchronization with mobile devices. When the university offered faculty and staff a choice of the same suite of Microsoft tools--either hosted in the cloud or on-site--almost every group chose the cloud-based option, says Gonzales.

UNM's decision to go with Microsoft was also influenced by its affiliated medical center, which must comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Under HIPAA regulations, "business associate" (BA) agreements are required for cloud providers that handle protected health information. In Gonzales' experience, Microsoft addresses the issue better than Google.

The same concern played a role in Thomas Jefferson University's decision to go with Office 365 for its faculty and staff. HIPAA requires that all data centers storing patient information be in the United States and that US intellectual property laws hold sway. With its far-flung operations, Google couldn't guarantee this, he says, nor was it willing to sign a BA agreement.

On the other hand, TJU's legal team felt that the BA agreement offered by Microsoft for its Office 365 product passed muster. "Microsoft was working with several other academic medical centers on the same issues," Herrick recalls. In early 2012, the university converted 8,000 faculty and staff accounts to Office 365. It was a good experience, Herrick says. Jefferson's IT team does the provisioning and de-provisioning, and manages security beyond what Microsoft offers.

By going with Office 365 for faculty and staff, TJU created a hybrid model, since the student body has been on GAE since 2010. The hybrid situation is a little more involved, admits Herrick. TJU has to have a basic ID management framework to assign roles to people and authentication directory services. "That adds an element of complexity, but it's not as complex as running your own e-mail system," he adds.

At a Glance: Boise State

Boise State University (ID) moved students to Google in 2008, and faculty and staff in 2009. According to Peter Jurhs, technical manager at Boise State, the Microsoft offering at the time simply wasn't comparable. The service Google provides today is better than what the university could deliver, he says, and it would require some huge shift in circumstances for the school to consider switching vendors. "Moving people's e-mail is like moving their cheese," notes Jurhs. "We wouldn't do it unless we had to."

Google Advantages
But if Microsoft's Office 365 is a superior enterprise product, why would a school even bother with a hybrid model and the resulting headaches? For that matter, why have so many schools plumped for GAE, despite all the difficulties associated with Google contracts?

For Georgetown, GAE held several advantages over Office 365. For one, the university wants to remain OS-neutral. "We have about 50 percent PCs and 50 percent Macs in use by faculty," explains Davis. "We wanted a platform that would be agnostic to those." Her concerns are not ill-founded: While Office 365 subscriptions for Windows machines will run the new Office 2013 suite, Mac users will have to make do with the older version. In addition, Office on Demand, which streams Office applications to PCs running Windows 7 and Windows 8, won't be available on the Mac, since OS X doesn't support the technology.

The school also felt the GAE platform was more dynamic than that of Office 365, with new tools such as Google+ being released on a regular basis. "We saw that this platform was continuing to evolve," says Davis. "Although Office 365 is a good product, we didn't see the same level of innovation with Microsoft. We are trying to reimagine the way we think about technology at Georgetown. We thought Google fit into that innovation theme better."

The key decider, though, was the fact that Georgetown's students had already switched to GAE in 2010, after a survey found that 70 percent of student respondents had been forwarding their e-mail to personal Google accounts because of the additional storage space on offer. "The faculty wanted to be on the same platform as the students," notes Davis.

Surveys, town hall meetings, and committee input prompted the same decision at the University of Maryland in 2011. The overwhelming feedback from students was that they wanted Google because it's what they grew up with and knew best. "At the time, Office 365 was only a few months old," recalls David Barks, assistant director of systems architecture. "We looked at Live@edu and we were rolling out an Exchange 2010 offering on premise for faculty and staff at the time, so we knew what to expect. It really came down to what we thought would help our students be more successful."

Like TJU, though, Maryland opted not to give GAE to its faculty and staff. According to Todd Harrison, assistant director of unified communications and collaboration services, university officials believe they need to keep employee e-mail systems on the premises--at least for now--because of certain e-discovery and regulatory policy requirements.

A Hybrid Compromise
The hybrid approach espoused by Maryland and TJU is a compromise that may serve other institutions well. While lots of students use the consumer-oriented Google Apps for their personal use, faculty and staff tend to be familiar with Outlook and integrated calendars. The fact that Microsoft is the legacy platform in so many schools may also tip the scales in the company's favor when it comes to faculty and staff use. "As a Microsoft shop in some areas, we use Active Directory, Office, and SharePoint," says Herrick. "There is strong integration and compatibility at the organizational level."

A Side-by-Side Comparison

The bConnected Project at the University of California, Berkeley has published a side-by-side comparison of the e-mail and calendar features of GAE and Office 365 Education. While it's focused on features of particular relevance to Berkeley, the analysis may prove valuable in helping other campus leaders decide which product to implement. Spoiler alert: Last fall, the school began an all-campus migration to Gmail, powered by Google.

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