I've had a few very interesting conversations with some of the folks at Microsoft responsible for their Live@Edu and Outlook Live programs recently. After I reviewed Google Apps vs. Microsoft Live Web Apps, I concluded that, while their approaches were different, both had a lot of merit. Now, regular readers will know that it's pretty rare for me to sing Microsoft's praises. However, Microsoft seems to be putting together an interesting value proposition for schools, worthy at least of some consideration.
For those of us who have "gone Google" (Google announced in September that over 5 million students around the world were using Google Apps for Education), the appeal of a truly cloud-based solution is clear. It's easy. Plain and simple. It's easy and it works remarkably well, whether in K-12 or university settings. Gmail is easy to use and Docs enables very straight-forward collaboration, as well as making it simple for users to access their documents anytime, anywhere.
For those of us with seriously limited resources, this frees us up to be more involved with curriculum and integrating technology in the classroom rather than running Exchange servers. Even for universities, where IT budgets tend to be a bit less lean, who wouldn't rather expend resources on a server farm for a physics department, subsidize a student laptop program, or otherwise redirect resources to expanding and improving students computing services?
Seems like a no-brainer for Apps, right? Not so fast. There are times, especially at the university level, where serious research is happening every day, when the cloud just doesn't seem like the spot to host important and highly-confidential mail. Students also need to log in to campus computing resources, no matter how much they "live in the cloud." Whether they just need to print, need to access a computer in a lab, or need to get at a shared drive, some sort of on-premises back-end server resource is going to come into play.
Here's where things start to get interesting with Microsoft. I'm not overlooking the role of Linux in the server room, but a Windows Server-based ecosystem, incorporating Sharepoint, Exchange, and layering Live@Edu services on top makes for an expensive but powerful solution. I'm not yet sold enough to truly advocate for a Microsoft authentication/communication/collaboration approach either in K-12 or university settings.
However, if you're already building on-premises services for your students (and let's just say for the sake of argument that you're using Windows Server and Active Directory), then Exchange talks to Active Directory quite nicely. Outlook Live, which is basically Exchange 2010 running in the cloud, also talks quite nicely to your back end hardware. Sharepoint, of course, allows for all sorts of collaboration and, again, talks quite well to AD, and Live@Edu (and the single sign-on, cloud-based portal goodness it enables) similarly interacts pretty seamlessly with AD and Outlook Live.
This begs the question of where your back end, well, ends, and the cloud begins for your organization. Microsoft reps like to talk about choice in this space. Want your research faculty communicating via Exchange on-premise while your students access Outlook Live? Then you can do that. You have to set up authentication and build infrastructure for students and staff no matter what; why not have that infrastructure feed into cloud-based services wherever you want?
It's also true that Google Apps can talk pretty nicely to Exchange and a variety of LDAP servers, allowing for decent integration of Apps with your back end infrastructure. It continues to mature at breakneck speeds. However, as my father always said, there's more than one way to skin a cat. How do you want to handle communication and collaboration for your organization? How much of it do you want to happen in the cloud? And how much of the nitty gritty do you want to control?
For me, Google Apps and all the services that Google offers at the low low price of free still makes the most sense. What makes the most sense for you? Talk back and let me know.