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Take your Google Apps experience into Orbit

Orbit is an enhancement product for Google Apps which provides better document and project management capabilities.

I've been listening to the audiobook version of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, which paints a detailed portrait of the iconic Apple founder. Like Steven Levy's "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution," it's always interesting to see how pioneers built the fledgling computer industry back in the quaint days of floppy disks, green screens, and memory measured in kilobytes.

One element about Jobs which Isaacson makes clear (and of which Jobs was not ashamed) was his desire to make the Apple computer a closed system. Customization by the end user was not a priority, which went against the grain in the tech realm at the time (and in many areas today). This notion worked fine for one set of users since it led to a predictable and sterile environment, but this was obviously not feasible for those who wanted to add onto their systems or implement other features outside the box.

Introducing Orbit

Google Apps is more of an open system; it allows customization by outside companies offering third-party products to enhance Google's foundation of features. One such example is Arachno Orbit, which brings new functions (similar to Microsoft SharePoint for instance) to Google Apps.

Orbit "offers a custom-branded experience which provides a familiar space to interact with external customers and partners," according to Yuliya Pieletskaya, Director of Marketing at Arachno Corp. In essence, Orbit is a company portal providing team collaboration and project/data management capabilities (including discussions) to help users complete tasks and goals more effectively. You can work any type of data in Orbit, whether Microsoft Office files, Google documents, spreadsheets, or any form of multimedia. Furthermore, Orbit also provides database functionality. Development platform capabilities are available to integrate data functions with other business applications.

It may sound like Orbit replaces or eliminates much of the Google Apps environment, but it still very much uses Google Apps as the platform underneath the experience. Orbit syncs with Google Calendar/Google Contacts, for instance, and integrates with Google Drive and Cloud Storage (Arachno touts "Infinite Data Storage capabilities"). Contacts can be added to a database (and also shared or linked to documents) along with contents of Google Drive/Google Sites and even Youtube videos. Arachno is positioning Orbit as an Enterprise Content Management System, though it can work for any size business.

A Basic Walkthrough

Home Page

Orbit implements a home page for users so that they can see what's active at a glance. Users can access company pages and data using a hierarchical display, similar to Figure B.

Figure B

Adding items

New tabs can be created and customized, and access to pages are specified via user or group-based permissions (this works from a top-level basis). Items can be arranged using folders or categories and tagged via numerous methods such as keyword, object or other descriptors.

The process for adding folders to a page is simple; click the + sign and choose Folder as a New Item. (Figure C)

Figure C

Adding files (or links) works much the same way. (Figure D)

Figure D

Orbit provides options for uploading files or adding items from Drive (you can also create new items within Orbit).

Added files appear as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

Working with data

Opening files presents a view similar to Figure F.

Figure F

It's easy to check out documents (such as frequently changed files which should only be opened by one user at a time) to work on them. (Figure G)

Figure G

Users can notify one another via email to request access to checked-out documents. These documents can then be checked back in when ready. (Figure H)

Figure H

Orbit also provides versioning capability for data which allows users to view previous editions of objects. (Figure I)

Figure I

Here's an interesting feature called "Ropy," which essentially works as a pointer to a file using single-instance storage. When you "ropy" an object it appears in multiple locations but only one instance of that file is kept, thus reducing storage needs.

Figure J

Tasks

Task management is fairly intuitive; these can be added from the portal dashboard and associated with files, folders, objects or categories. (Figure K)

Figure K

In the example above, a task can be assigned to a user with an array of "due in" or "due at" options. Orbit allows task tracking to review progress and completion. (Figure L)

Figure L

Tasks can even be associated with specific files and users can add comments to these as needed.

Tagging

It's possible to use complex tagging by "keyword," "object," "location" or "structured" to organize data. Structured tagging capabilities, for instance, might look similar to Figure M.

Figure M

Search

Search functionality should be familiar to Google users via the interface shown in Figure N.

Figure N

The Advanced Search capability allows you to get more granular (and here is where Orbit excels over the default searching in Google Apps). (Figure O)

Figure O

Reporting

Orbit allows a variety of reports, such as tracking when objects are downloaded, uploaded, commented upon or discussed.

Chatting with the creators

I recently spoke with Yuliya Pieletskaya about Orbit after reviewing what it can do for Google Apps users.

Scott Matteson (SM): What are the top three advantages which Orbit offers that native Google Apps does not (in a nutshell, what are people missing out on if they're not Orbit users)? Yuliya Pieletskaya (YP): "Hierarchical organization with the use of tabs, categories, folders and objects" would be the first advantage. Next we offer "Smart Search with advanced filters". For the third advantage I would list "keyword, structured and local tagging." SM: How easy is it to get set up on Orbit (timeframe, Google Apps changes, user/admin training, etc.?) YP: Depends on size of user base, document and folder structure to be migrated to Orbit and customization, if any. However, once files are migrated and organizational structure is defined, Orbit site can be set up rather quickly. Ease of use and intuitive interface makes deployment very quick. Arachno estimates users can begin working with Orbit following a 30-45 minute training session. Users will have access to the Orbit User Guide and a "See it in action" video for future reference. SM: Are there any potential snags or pitfalls to be aware of during an Orbit implementation? YP: No, it is a relatively seamless process. Arachno is working very closely with a select few Google Channel Partners, including Appirio, LTech, and Valley Apps to ensure a smooth and methodical transition into Orbit. The challenges that need to be overcome, as is the case with any migration of an organization's documents, files, and data from one platform to another, is ensuring that the properties and hierarchy of the content is maintained. Google's powerful migration tools help to significantly reduce Orbit's implementation time since we can seamlessly pull documents from Drive into our system, maintaining structure. SM: How long did it take to build Orbit? How many people were involved, and were there any snags, pitfalls, lessons, etc. that might be good to share with readers? YP: The current version of Orbit evolved over a 6-month development period, having one primary senior engineer and an occasional mid-level developer dedicated to its build-out since early October 2012. This was made possible purely as a function of already having the platform, ArachnoDB, in place, which supports Orbit as its underlying database system. In an otherwise normal development environment, a system of this nature could take upwards of 8,000 hours of development time. SM: Did your organization work with Google or obtain any sort of permissions, rights, licenses, etc. in order to proceed with developing Orbit? If so, what was involved? YP: Arachno developed its underlying platform over a period of several years. Following several discussions with Google in 2009 and early 2010, the database management system was redesigned to run on Google App Engine, during which time there was lots of interaction with Google's App Engine team. Arachno's cloud based platform was launched in early 2011.

Arachno is a subscriber to a number of Google's Cloud Platform services and products that are essential to running Arachno's DB platform and its Orbit system:

  • Google App Engine
  • Google Cloud SQL
  • Google Cloud Storage
  • Google Prediction API
  • Google BigQuery Service
  • Google Compute Engine
  • Google Translate API
  • No other rights, permissions or licenses have been obtained from Google.
SM: Can you furnish the costs involved with using Orbit? YP: Orbit is offered on a subscription basis and is priced at $9 per user per month. The subscription fee includes basic set-up, implementation, training, and customer support. Based on the nature of files, magnitude of documents, and volume of data, large organizations can expect to incur additional set-up and migration charges as part of an Orbit deployment. Additionally, premium support services will be priced according to user needs.

Also, some exciting features are in development for Version 2.0!

  • Mobile App (Orbit is currently available on mobile devices through browsers)
  • E-mail Interface
  • Advanced Workflows
SM: Have you seen any issues with Google Drive synchronization? Specifically with companies uploading files using the Google Drive app for Windows? The reason I ask is that I recently wrote an article about some issues I had with Drive (duplicate data problems; these were unsolvable at the time my article was published) and would like to determine whether it works more effectively for your customers than for me. YP: We've never encountered anything like that with our users, I'm not sure if maybe they just aren't using their local Drive apps or they don't face the issue but no one has ever come to us with it.

Conclusion

If your organization is interested in improving its data management and project collaboration, Orbit might be a good fit. The per-user price is comparable to that of an Office 365 subscription (which provides SharePoint features) without requiring a switch to a different platform. This ensures stability and a minimum of disruption for companies already committed to Google Apps (or who find it superior to Office 365).

For more information, you can visit the Company's website at www.arachno.com, check out LTech's page on Orbit, view the associated video on Youtube, or feel free to contact Yuliya at ypieletskaya@arachno.com.

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About

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.

1 comments
Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Are you looking for third-party applications to increase the efficiency of the collaboration taking place in your organization?