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Google Apps versus Exchange

Google Apps versus Exchange ServerAn IT business, like any other business these days, depends very much on communication over the internet. Customers need to be able to email you for support, potential customers need to be able to reach your sales staff, employees need to be able to reach each other whether they are in the office or on the road and everyone needs to know when, where and with who things are happening. All this communicating also depends on other systems such as knowledge management, calendars, contacts and collaborative business tools of one kind or another.

A long time staple for handing all (or much of) this in businesses everywhere is Microsoft Exchange. But we’re in a new age now and the buzz is all about “Cloud” and “SaaS” and so now we have Google Business Apps seeming to provide a viable alternative to Exchange – but is it up to the task or is Exchange still king of the hill in the Google Apps versus Exchange showdown?

What does Google Apps bring to the table?

Google Apps is of course all hosted entirely on Google servers and so that means (in theory) that it will be fast and always available from anywhere… except when it’s not! Of course it is rare for Google to have an outage but it does happen now and then and when your business depends entirely on Google you could be out of luck at the worst possible time. There’s not much you can do when that happens except sit back and wait for Google to send their crack team of PhD wielding engineers to turn it off and on again, or whatever it takes to fix it. As an IT service provider, your lack of access and control over something so important may not look good to the customers who pay you to manage all their IT and blaming Google may seem like passing the buck.

However, while downtime of your cloud hosted critical business apps is annoying, it should also be noted that by their nature it means they handle all the tricky technical stuff to keep it online and fix it when it’s not online and to update it with new features, bug fixes and security patches. You don’t need to worry about that, you have your business to run and you’d rather not be spending precious time fixing in-house mail servers when they crash (which they likely will eventually) at customer premises or even your own.

Another potential worry when using Google Apps (or any Cloud based service) is the lack of control over the data, as opposed to the systems. Everything you have, all your or your customers critical business data, is on servers owned and managed by someone else. What happens if they lose it? Or get hacked? Or decide to shutdown that particular service you rely on? What if you or you customer want to leave, can you get that data out and will they delete it fully afterwards? These are important issues and Google is of course well aware of it. In theory they will delete your data eventually, in theory they wont get hacked or lose your data through system failure (or human error), in theory you can trust them. In practice – that’s just something you will have to consider and decide for yourself if you can accept and if your customers can too.

Being web based and Google in particular, you can at least expect it to be relatively simple to get setup with their Business Apps and managing it is fairly straightforward – you just configure your preferences and users through simple point & click forms and off you go – your clients may wonder why they are even paying you at all! No more hassles with managing the hardware or software backend. Of course there is a price for all this convenience – even though it’s Google you still have to pay for it, currently $5 per user per month, which is not really that bad, all things considered.

Additionally there is a plugin for Outlook which lets you integrate it with your Google Apps data so you get the best of both worlds.

If you go with the Exchange Server option you have perhaps more functionality (although you may not need it all) and of course full control over all the data as it all resides on your own hardware wherever that may be. You can back it up, you can move it around, you can shut it down, whatever you need to do you can do as nobody else has access (in theory!). All this also means you have to pay a lot more, in terms of hardware and other resources to properly utilize such features as clustering and high availability, to get the redundancy which comes as standard with cloud services, at least when the cloud services actually deliver what they promise.

The downside is that it may “shutdown” on its own or in other words it might crash and bring an entire business to a standstill. When that happens there will be no Google Ninjas swinging into action to save the day – it’s all on your own head and you’ll have to figure out what went wrong and somehow get it working again all the while everyone in the company is complaining and the pressure will be piling up, but that’s the price you pay (on top of the actual price you pay for the software) when you decide not to rely on the cloud. You have to deal with sourcing suitable hardware, installation, configuration, administration, upgrading, fixing, administration, upgrading, etc etc. For an IT business this of course shouldn’t present too much of a problem as it is what you do and naturally results in more billable hours which is generally a good thing – but you also have to consider what is best for your customers at the end of the day since they are not just paying you for fun.

On the upside, your customers may be more familiar with the Microsoft offerings and there’s a lot to be said for that as it can save a lot of time and effort with retraining and supporting users. Additionally pretty much every serious business application out there will integrate with Exchange, one way or another, if there is any possible use to do so. However it will cost more to buy and run an Exchange Server, along with all the “optional” add-ons which you may have to buy from Microsoft or a 3rd party, and chances are it will still be down more than Google Apps.

Muddying the waters somewhat is Office 365 which is basically Microsoft’s cloud based answer to Google Apps (and other cloud offerings) which gives you the familiarity and functionality of the good old self-hosted Exchange Server with the go faster stripes and coolness of the cloud and for a price which is in fact cheaper than Google Apps at just $4 per user per month.

Ultimately it is up to you and your clients which path to take, whether it be Google Apps or Exchange Server or even Office 365, and the decision may well be influenced heavily by what other applications the business depends on anyway. There are pros and cons to both options so carefully weigh them up for based on the specific requirements before taking the plunge one way or the other.

Backup Tools

Backup ToolsIf there’s one thing that keeps IT Managers and business owners awake at night it is the thought of catastrophic data loss, typically due to hardware failure but it could also be due to failed software upgrades , database updates, human error or even malicious hackers. So in order to sleep better it is of course essential to have good backup tools.

Backups can be done in many ways, even manually with a simple copy command, however manually created backups are not something to be relied on because it is only a matter of time before a backup is forgotten or it fails to include some essential data and you may never know about it until you need it and find your critical data is not there. You do not want that to happen! Proper backup tools which are automatically run on schedule and which make incremental backups containing data updates and additions along with periodical full backups with all your data are the order of the day. There are quite a few solutions which provide just this, as you would expect as backups are not a new thing, some of which are software you must install and manage, some are complex backup server systems and some are remotely managed services so you only have to deal with defining what and when to backup and the rest is done for you.

For Linux based systems a popular backup utility is rsnapshot which is basically just a Perl script that wraps around rsync and is run by cron every hour or at intervals you define. It creates the incremental backups as you would expect and rotates them all for you. Once configured it works well. It does of course depend on your own backup hardware and you need to make sure it is configured correctly and actually runs as and when required.

For a more ‘enterprise’ level backup system you could use something like Bacula which is an open source system featuring a linux/unix based server along with client daemons which run on multiple OS’s including Windows.

Once you have a backup system in place you need to know it is actually running and doing its job so you could use your monitoring tools to keep an eye on it and alert you if things go wrong so you can hopefully fix it long before you ever need to access your backed up data.

So called ‘Cloud’ backup tools are another option and there are many to choose from, quite a few of which depend on Cloud storage systems such as AWS (Amazon). Having your data managed and hosted by another company may be something you would need to consider carefully for various reasons from legal to security. Is your data secure there and do your terms of service or client contracts allow you to store data in such a way? There are undoubtedly benefits to using a managed backup service but make sure to do your due diligence before trusting your precious data to a 3rd party. Services for MSP’s to consider include Kaseya, Datto and GFI, amongst others.

Either way it is certainly wise to have more than one backup location anyway so your backups do not go up in smoke along with your primary systems!

Whichever backup tools you choose to use you also need to make sure that you can get your data back from your backups should you ever need to. It is essential to test that your backups are working and the right data from the appropriate snapshots is easily and quickly available – data recovery is just as important as data backup!

Which are your favorite backup tools? Let us know in the comments..