We're working with a new services integrator on our Internet connections and district-wide infrastructure. The company (Integrity by CELT), has done a great job of finding us lower-cost solutions to everything from Internet service to an automated calling system. We're looking at their online backup services as well to make our offsite backups more robust and easier to manage. Suffice to say, we're really pleased with what they've done so far and are looking forward to building our relationship with them further.
Along those lines, they also offer an email and online groupware solution. While it's nothing revolutionary, it's a very well-put together interface with intuitive and easy management for a low cost per user. It includes document sharing, chat, user file storage, group calendars, and an archiving component, allowing us to meet FRCP requirements with just a single, dedicated PC. The management interface for users and groups is also quite good, allowing for very granular control of user privileges.
Seems like a no-brainer, right? The only fly in the ointment is Google Apps for Educational Domains. That, of course, is free, and, for those of us who are already Gmail users, is the holy grail of online groupware. Google Apps includes all of the features above (except the "digital locker", although the G-drive appears to be just around the corner), plus adds the functionality and collaboration features of Google Docs.
This is where the trade-offs start getting harder to evaluate. Google Docs (with integrated spreadsheets, documents, presentations, and web forms) is a really big deal. No matter how good the product from CELT is (and it's very solid; I have no problem recommending it after banging away on a test account for quite a while), it won't include Docs. For a lot of people who aren't ready to change the way they produce documents and collaborate with each other, this is a non-started. For those of us really looking to revolutionize the way we interact with students and share ideas, Google Docs looks mighty attractive.
Google Apps is also free, allowing us to open it up to students and staff. However, archiving for emails has a cost per person, albeit with a discount for educational institutions. This could be bypassed by setting up a few PCs with robust email clients, replicating all of the Gmail accounts with IMAP, but this requires central management of passwords. Google Apps also allows you to turn off email for students or to simply archive for teachers and staff, but the former seems to steal a lot of the power or Google while the latter seems a bit risky.
Archiving with CELT, on the other hand is seemless and included with the cost.
One of the major complaints that users have about our current email system is the horrible search interface for retrieving emails. Obviously, Google has search down pretty well. It's Google. Gmail users will be quite familiar with the ease of finding emails from within the 7GB of storage. While the search feature in CELT's solution isn't quite as powerful as Google's, it's a huge improvement over what we have and is graphically intuitive.
So what do we do? This decision can't be made in a vacuum and I'll be talking with users about their preferences. As a long-time personal user of Apps and now having tested Apps with an administrator account that Google set up for me, I can attest to its extraordinary power and flexibility. More importantly, I think that if we can embrace it culturally within our organization, it has the power to transform the way we work.
CELT's solution (like those of many ISPs and service integrators), though, comes with personal support, whatever assistance we need in terms of setup, and a single point of contact for most of our networking/hosting needs.
In the end, the cost comes out to be a wash, assuming we pay Google to handle all of our archiving or we pay CELT for the service. It speaks to the quality of what CELT offers that this Google devotee is even struggling with the decision. Assuming, however, that I don't get many objections from users or hear compelling arguments to the contrary, I think Google is going to win out because of Docs. As a district, we have implemented a number of strategies to create a genuinely collaborative culture, driving us towards a goal of improving student achievement from K-12. Google simply provides us with an extra set of tools to help make that happen.