Google Apps boss says cloud computing is your destiny
'Everybody' will move to the heavens
Interview It was a Google ad. But not the kind you've come to expect. Last month, inside The Economist, a magazine in the old fashioned, physical sense of the word, Google ran a four-page ad touting its own Google Apps suite, that all-web-all-the-time challenger to Microsoft Office. "Each day, over 3,000 businesses go Google," the ad read, hailing the more than three million outfits who have adopted the suite since its debut in 2007, and listing more than a dozen by name.
"We believe that 100% web is the future of the cloud computing model, and brings substantial benefits for companies that no other IT model can provide in terms of simplicity, cost, security, flexibility, and pace of innovation," read a signed missive from David Girouard, the president of Google's Enterprise business. That "100% web is the future of cloud computing" bit isn't quite the tautology it might seem. It's a swipe at Microsoft's new Office, which famously straddles desktop and web.
Google's empire is built on web advertising. In 2010, ninety-six per cent of its $29bn in revenue  came from online ads. But Google Apps is different. Google sells subscriptions to enterprises, applying its web know-how to a market traditionally controlled by a very different kind of software company. And it's actually using print ads – not to mention billboards  – in an effort to shove its way past likes of Microsoft and IBM.
Mountain View has purchased print ads trumpeting the Google Apps suite in other magazines, on other occasions, but the Economist ad – all four pages of it – is part of a renewed push. In November, Google actually sued the US Department of the Interior , claiming the government agency didn't give Google a fair chance to win the $49.3 million contract it awarded to Microsoft Office. And last month, it removed a clause from the Google Apps terms of service that allowed for scheduled downtime – an unprecedented move meant to show that the suite is more reliable than the traditional competition.
In a recent interview with The Register, David Girouard acknowledged that the company has turned up the volume of late. "It's not that we haven't been promoting [Google Apps] all along," he said. "But we also have been cognizant that the product needed to mature. We've been in the market with our cloud apps for almost four years now, and the products are maturing and getting better, and I think that over the course of 2010, we got the confidence that these products really worked.
"Our renewal rates were extraordinarily high, and our customer satisfaction went up. You don't want to turn on too much of the gas, too much of the messaging, until you're really confident. Through the course of 2010, we really got it there."
He admitted the suite still has its flaws. He gave his own company a "B" on customer support, for instance, and he acknowledged there's an interface "trade-off" when you switch from a traditional desktop suite, meaning the interface can't quite match what you get from a local app. But he argued there are many areas where Google Apps is superior to the competition, citing not only limited downtime but security, and in an echo of that Economist ad, he was quick to point out that the suite is already in wide use.
"A lot of the world doesn't appreciate that this stuff is here for real," he said. "We're trying to make sure people see that the cloud – these cloud applications – aren't conceptual things of the future. It's happening at a large scale."
How large? He wouldn't exactly say. According to that ad, 3,000 business are moving to the suite each day, and over three million have moved since its debut in 2007. But it's unclear how much revenue Google is generating from subscriptions. All we know is that it's under $1bn a year, less than four per cent of the company's overall revenue. The aim, however, is to create a multi-billion-dollar business – in the near term. "Not a decade from now," Girouard said, "but within a few years."
Eventually, he said, "everybody" will adopt so-called cloud applications – though this will require a sea change in the way many view the web. "You have to build confidence over time," Girouard said. "The reality is that everybody will be doing it. It's like using a telephone. You don't think twice about using a telephone for business purposes now, but it used to be considered strange."
99.984% Gfail free
One afternoon in September 2009, Gmail – a centerpiece of the Google Apps suite – was offline for an hour and forty minutes . Users across the globe were unable to access the service after the company made a mistake when updating the request routers that direct queries to Gmail's web servers. The incident followed a series of other, smaller Gmail outages – all widely reported by the tech press – but Google always argued that, compared to client-server email systems, the service was far more reliable.
Nearly a year and a half on, the argument holds up. Like Google's search engine, Google Apps is built atop a highly distributed infrastructure  that spreads both data and code across myriad servers and data centers. This uniform back-end is designed so that if one data center goes down, another can immediately step into the breech. "Typically, others will have one data center go down, and then they'll fire up the other data center, and there will be some lag, and some loss of data that you have to recover later," Girouard told us. "Our [infrastructure] is set up so you don't even know."
What's more, he said, Google uses custom-built tools that allow it to upgrade services without taking them offline – though he declined to discuss these tools specifically. "It's something we inherited from our search system," he said.
Obviously, Google isn't immune to outages. But that distributed backend has allowed the company to promise "no scheduled downtime " with that change to its terms of service, and if there is downtime – no matter how small – it gets counted towards the customer's agreement, which guarantees 99.9 per cent availability. In 2010, according to Google, Gmail was available to both business users and consumers 99.984 per cent of the time - roughly seven minutes offline per month – and yes, there was no scheduled downtime.
At $50 per user per year, Google Apps is also relatively inexpensive. Some estimates indicate that traditional systems eat up closer to $200 a year. And setup is far simpler with a web-based system. Most big enterprises, Girouard said, install their own authentication servers for use with the service, but otherwise, everything is hosted by Google, and it's all accessed via the browser. In another moment of humility, Girouard said it's still far too difficult for small businesses to sign up for the service – an overhaul of the signup process is on the way – but either way, it not as annoying as installing your own application servers.
And yet many businesses are reluctant to make the switch, as Girouard freely admits. Some are concerned with security. Others chafe at the idea of hosting their data on someone else's servers. Some don't like the UI. Other just want to use what they've always used.
Google v Angry Free Software Man
Girouard argues that Google Apps is actually more secure than an in-house system. "I think we can make a case that your data is safer with us, that we invest so much money in security and that our protection rate is better, that it would be hard for any one company to match what we do," he said.
The past few years have shown, he said, that cloud computing offers a superior security model, putting control in the hands of companies with the necessary experience and resources. "You can look across Salesforce, Amazon, Google. There hasn't been a large-scale disaster in terms of data leakage. If you look at the rest of the world, it happens every day. The track record is beginning to prove this logical argument that your data is safer."
He also downplayed the possibility of a rogue Google employee nabbing a customer's data, saying that the company limits who has access to passwords and that these employees undergo strict background checks. "This is a problem for any company," he said. "If you manage your own system, you have to manage your own employees."
In September, Google dismissed an engineer  who had access to its back-end systems after he violated the company's internal privacy policies and apparently accessed customer Gmail accounts. In the wake of the dismissal, the company said it was "significantly increasing" the amount of time it spends auditing logs in an effort to ensure that its internal security controls are working as they should.
Outside of the employees who have access to customer passwords, Girouard said, no one at the company view customer data. This is another product of Google's distributed back-end. "Your data is split and written across tens of hundreds of thousands of servers," he said. "No one can point to a server and say 'There is Jaguar Landrover's email.' It's digitally shredded and spread across servers. If someone were to walk into a data center and make off with a server, it would just be a bunch of gibberish."
When we asked about subpoenas and National Security Letters that compell Google to give up customer data, Girouard at first dodged the question. But ultimately, he argued that this isn't the problem that pundits - including Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman - make it out to be. In most cases, Girouard said, if a court or a government wants your data, it will come to you. And only rarely, he said, will Google be forced to give up your data without your knowledge or against your will.
"Only in very rare circumstances is [the data truly] out of your hands," he said. "First of all, they'll go to you, not us, if they want to get your data. They know where you live. They will go to you. That really is the reality. We've worked through this issue with many companies. That's not to say that a National Security Letter could be issued and we could be forced to turnover data without notifying you. It is a theoretical possibly ...But it's a corner case, and it's not practical reality."
In January of 2010, Google announced that Chinese hackers had stolen unspecified intellectual property from the company's internal systems, and it said "a primary motive" of the attacks was to gain access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists. The incident showed that Google security is breakable, but for Girouard, it also demonstrated the company's commitment to protecting user data. Following the hack, Google vowed to stop censoring search results in China, and eventually, it moved its search operation to Hong Kong, giving up much of its foothold in the country.
"Google has shown its stripes over the years, that we view the protection of your data as sacred," he said. "We'll fight the government if we need to fight the government. I think we've proven ourselves over time. Look at the China incident. Google will put its commercial interests aside to protect users' data. There's never an absolute answer here. It's a judgment call. But it's an area where we're creating a nice track record."
Google Apps go Native?
The other salient issue is that some portions of the Google Apps suite – most notably Google Docs, which handles word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations – can't quite match the interface you get with, say, Microsoft Office. Google has never been particularly adept at UI, but it's also limited by the medium.
Naturally, Girouard downplays this interface gap as well. "There is definitely a historical tradeoff between a web application and a thin client," he said. "But we are closing that gap in terms of experience and responsiveness very quickly, and there's this whole other side of things you can only do in the cloud, like co-editing a document at the same time or having revision history available to everyone or having one person edit on an iPad and another on a PC. We're working hard to make the fundamental experience on Google Docs better than Office and we think we're getting close."
Outside of Girouard's enterprise group, Google's Chrome team is developing a plug-in technology, Native Client, that runs native code inside the browser , an effort to speed the performance of web applications. We asked Girouard if the company is developing a native-code version of Google Apps, and he completely sidestepped the question.
"Native Client is one of several things we're doing to make sure you have access to the full system from the browser," he said. "Google has a whole bunch of initiatives that add up to making the browser the right platform and being able to eliminate the distinction between writing a Windows applications and writing for a browser. We've made a lot of progress, but we're still not all the way there yet."
But he did say that Google now has members of the Chrome team and the Enterprise team working together in close proximity, and these meta-teams are developing tools involving both Chrome and Chrome OS, the upcoming netbook operating system that puts all data and applications inside the browser. "We have what you can describe as an internal joint venture between the Chrome team and the enterprise team," Girouard said. "In fact, we now have teams that are co-located and working together to bring both Chrome the browser and Chrome OS [tools] to enterprises."
In mid-December, the company rolled out IT admin controls  for deploying and configuring the Chrome browser across business networks, tools that - ultimately - fuel the use of Google Apps. Support for the tools is provided under a standard Google Apps for Business agreement. Meanwhile, Chrome OS is built specifically for use with Google Apps – though it will run traditional office apps through thin client technology developed by Citrix.
Again, interface is a problem – at least with the current beta incarnation  of the OS. But in many ways, the platform is ideal for the enterprise. In theory, it's more secure than the average machine. Each webpage and app is restricted to its own sandbox, and if malware escapes the sandbox, Google does a verified boot at startup. What's more, the company points out, if you lose your netbook, you don't lose your data.
When Google isn't like Google
Why is Google – the advertising and search giant – so interested in enterprise computing? Google Apps give some much-needed diversity to the company's business. The company has hit it big with Android, but ultimately, that's just another way to drive advertising. The mobile OS is free. But Google Apps is not.
Giroaurd acknowledges that Google is interested in diversity - but not for diversity's sake. "I don't think [Google Apps] started with the idea of having diversity," he told us. "It probably started with the idea of 'Here's an area where Google should apply itself: enterprise computing.' Maybe it doesn't seem obvious, but Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] didn't start Google with the idea that it would be a consumer company. ... They started with the idea of using computer science to address information problems that are very hard to solve; most everything Google has done in the years since are all under that idea...
"I don't think Google sees itself as [merely an advertising business]. I think you'll see the company diversify, not because we want to be diversified but because it makes sense to do some things differently."
Asked if the enterprise business was started in order to fuel Google's famous thirst for data, Giroaurd said no. "Not at all. I've never had a conversation of that nature," he said. "It's really not the case whatsoever. The only way we use the data is to provide the service." If you use the consumer versions of services such as Gmail, Google may use your data to, say, tweak your search results . But the company told us this does not happen if you use the for-pay version of Google Apps.
"It's different if you're using Google Apps for Business vs. a consumer account," a company spokesman told us. "Of course, there is some limited cross-product information sharing within Apps, e.g., using contacts from your email to auto-populate a calendar entry."
Whatever the underlying motives driving Google Apps, the service is almost entirely ad-free. With the free version – for entrepreneurs, small businesses, and families – you'll see ads on Gmail, but nowhere else. The for-pay Google Apps for Business includes no ads whatsoever. Google is actually selling a service, and with this comes an extra responsibility, not only in terms of security and reliability but support – another area where Google doesn't have much experience.
Currently, the company offers online and daytime phone support for paying customers, and there's 24-hour, 7-day phone support for "P0" issues – i.e., those moments when you can't access the system at all. But the Girouard said that company intends to offer 24-by-7 phone support for all issues in the future. "We want to continue to do better," he said. "I'd give us a B on support. There's an impression that we're awful at it, but I think a lot of what we do with our free products is intermingled with what we do with our enterprise customers."
It's yet to be seen whether Google can truly dominate a market that's not advertising-driven, and that requires the company to provide not just technical support but, well, emotional support to its customers. Google is known for cold rationality, for an unemotional approach to the world's problems. But clearly, the company believes it can move beyond its reputation. ®