Right now it seems like there are as many different add-ons for Google Apps as there are different kinds of snowflakes in a blizzard. Since I am always interested in programs that build upon basic platform functionality (like Hyena, a souped-up Windows/Active Directory/Exchange management tool that blows away Microsoft's native management utilities) and I write about Google, I frequently hear about Google Apps enhancements both free and paid. The Google Apps Marketplace currently lists over 2300 listings for Google Apps related products, and the sheer volume of offerings out there can be overwhelming - and they are always changing. Only the truly noteworthy can pull ahead in the contest.
A couple of months ago I wrote about a project/document management add-on called Orbit which improves upon the native collaboration capabilities offered by Google Apps to make it more like Sharepoint. In a similar vein, I've been reading up on a product called FlashPanel by BetterCloud which provides improved administrative, security, and reporting features in Google Apps.
What does FlashPanel do that I can't already do now?
- Add users to more than one group at a time.
- Create customizable reports from over 100 fields related to my Google Apps domain.
- Manage the entire directory, both users and shared contacts, from one comprehensive view.
- Simple and comprehensive workflows for creating users, groups, and organization units.
- Manage user profiles and provide them with the access to do so themselves.
- Easily apply mandatory email settings for a select group of users, such as enabling IMAP/POP access or email forwarding.
- Manage companywide calendar sharing and ownership.
- Implement per-user and per-document management to control access to features, groups, and organization units (OUs).
- Email role delegation (such as the ability to monitor another user's email) and signature handling.
- Google Drive management capabilities which let you see storage quotas, control document sharing, and gain more insight into how users are working with tools like Google Docs. For instance, if you have a group of interns that shouldn't be sharing files publicly you can restrict them from doing so.
- Configure alerts for policy violations and other security situations.
- Monitor communications including emails and chats. Even drafts fall under this category, which I find clever since email drafts can be updated by multiple people without being sent, allowing them to sneakily exchange surreptitious information.
- In-depth guides to common tasks, such as a customizable deprovisioning workflow to walk admins through the steps involved with handling former user deactivation.
Can I see some hands-on examples?
Here's how you can add one user to multiple groups. (Figure A)
Here is an example of how you can add multiple users to a group at once (note, this is possible in the existing Google Apps Control Panel, but this shows how it would be done in FlashPanel). (Figure B)
This is a workflow for deprovisioning a user, to help ensure you get all steps completed in the right order. (Figure C)
Here is an example of how you can view Google Drive statistics, alerts, and further details. (Figure D)
This shows how you can configure document sharing settings and configure audit log emails. (Figure E)
Here's another example of an alert you can set up for documents which violate sharing policies, and how these should be handled. (Figure F)
This is what document sharing policies look like, which exemplifies the access controls you can put in place on your data. (Figure G)
You can also apply sharing settings to your Google Sites. (Figure H)
Screenshots used with permission by BetterCloud; these appear in their "Keys to Managing your Google Apps Domain" guide which is handy for both users and non-users of FlashPanel alike.
How FlashPanel Came About
It's always interesting to me to find out how an idea was developed and delivered to market, whether inside or outside of the Google arena. I spoke to Gail Axelrod, Corporate Communications Manager at BetterCloud.
Scott Matteson (SM): "What went into creating FlashPanel?"
Gail Axelrod (GA): "The idea came about in November, 2011. We gathered requirements and spoke with administrators and users to find out what they were looking for. In April of 2012 we launched an alpha to fifty customers over a one month test period. We then opened it up to five hundred users in June. FlashPanel launched a year ago in beta – it's still in beta until September."
SM: "Can you provide me with some customer names?"
GA: "Sure - Roots Canada, 22squared, Financial Times, Relay Foods, Stumptown Coffee, Reed.co.uk, Nevada System of Higher Education and Conservation International are some of the organizations running FlashPanel."
SM: "How many programmers were involved with developing FlashPanel?
GA: "The company started with a team of eight and in just over a year and a half we've grown to almost 40 - about 25 of whom are programmers. We're expanding our team and always looking for talented people as excited about the Google Apps ecosystem as we are!"
Gail also informed me about the results of an interesting survey in which over 24,000 Google Apps for Business administrators participated. Some takeaways:
"The challenges of moving 100% to the cloud are becoming more surmountable and the benefits of doing so have evolved beyond cost considerations. According to customers surveyed, the length of time it will take before we reach full cloud adoption is not far off.
In a very short period, Google Apps has become the critical foundation of the cloud application stack. Other layers (CRM, internal ticketing systems, ERP) are very fragmented, but [Bettercloud has] identified the early leaders and their overlap with Google.
We've reached a crucial tipping point where enterprises have made the investment, both mentally and time-wise, in Google Apps and are ready to replace remaining Microsoft technology (ie. SharePoint and Active Directory). It's time for Google and third-parties to provide companies with the features they need."
A noteworthy element of the survey: the biggest obstacle to cloud adoption was cited as "user attachment to existing legacy software." BetterCloud feels this will soon be an irrelevant factor due to the prevalence of Google/cloud software in the younger worker population.
Can I try FlashPanel for free?
Yes, a free trial is available in the Google Apps marketplace. You do not have to jump through annoying hoops or provide a credit card number; I set it up on my test domain within five minutes. First you must enable the Provisioning API for your domain. Then access the free trial link. (Figure I)
Click "Add it now." You will need to grant the app access to your data in order for it to function. (Figure J)
You must also accept the permissions shown in Figure K.
After a quick registration window, you can get started. (Figure L)
Once FlashPanel has finished scanning your domain you will receive an email, but you can proceed to view the product by clicking "Explore FlashPanel."
Figure M shows how it looks on my test domain.
The tabs across the top allowed me to get familiar with the interface and navigate through the options. Without going into exhaustive detail, here's how each tab maps out:
- Home – Home Dashboard page as shown above
- Directory – Management of Users, Groups, Organization Units and Shared Contacts
- Google Apps – Management of services (in my case Drive, Sites and Calendars)
- Reports – A plethora of reports on audits, quotas, activity and various related topics (Figure N)
- Tools – Utilities for managing users, groups, email, security, and other options (also shown on the Home Dashboard)
What I like about BetterCloud is their engaging and dynamic communication style. They report over 20,000 organizations and 12 million users are FlashPanel customers, but the company retains a more personable demeanor sometimes missing from larger organizations. BetterCloud has a web presence and several social media outlets. They regularly release interesting posts, updates and tips across these environments. For instance, they recently hosted a New York Google Apps user group.
They just announced a new Google Calendar function which gives "the ability to alter sharing settings for end user calendars, modify ownership of those calendars, and update privacy settings for a single calendar or every calendar within the domain. Admins can also filter calendars by exposure level to ensure sensitive information is not shared publicly. FlashPanel's Calendar functionality extends to Calendar Resources, where admins can view usage and update ownership and sharing settings as well."
Not only is BetterCloud enthusiastic about FlashPanel, they are invested in the potential of Google overall, and provide insights into the adoption process such as an article posted to their blog by David Politis, CEO of BetterCloud. Mr. Politis has also written guest posts for TechRepublic as well.
How about pricing?
The basic plan is free and includes user/group/contact/OU administration; setting management such as passwords, signatures, IMAP/POP and forwarding; calendar sharing and delegation; inventory view of Drive, Sites, and Calendars; canned reports such as user, activity and drive details, and BetterCloud training and basic knowledgebase/forum support.
Right now Enterprise plans are free until 9/12/13, at which point the charge will be $10 per user per year with a minimum order value of $200. These include all the basic features as well as bulk actions; multi-domain management; sharing management for Drive/Sites/Calendar; compliance policies; admin roles; email and chat monitoring; email policy scheduling; workflows and full support
Full pricing options are available here. Discounts are available for large organizations.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.