Google Apps

Using Google as an application platform

Find out why Google Apps is a powerful alternative to more established products such as Microsoft SharePoint and IBM Lotus Notes. And, if Google Apps doesn't offer the applications you need, see why the Google App Engine might fit the bill.

 

Collaboration is a hot term these days. Years ago, collaboration was known as groupware with products such as IBM Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise leading the way. While these products are still around, collaboration is now ubiquitous. You see it in everything from e-mail to sites such as Facebook and Blogger to packaged products such as Microsoft SharePoint and Lotus Notes.

SharePoint is a great example of a packaged solution that promotes collaboration within the enterprise. It's one of Microsoft's fastest growing products, but it includes a hefty price tag. SharePoint was on my mind as I perused the Google Apps offering.

Google Apps and the Google App Engine assist IT departments by providing much needed IT infrastructure through a set of applications, as well as a development platform for building your own applications. Here's a look at both products.

Google Apps

Google Apps provides a suite of online applications, which include the following:

  • Gmail provides address book and search features, along with integration with Google Talk and Calendar.
  • Google Talk is an instant messaging tool for real-time communication with contacts. File sharing and voice is included as well.
  • Google Calendar organizes schedules with easy-to-use calendars that may be shared among groups of people. In addition, you may integrate it with your current calendar platform.
  • Google Docs allows you to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. It supports familiar document formats such as the Microsoft Office Suite of products, so you can easily use it with existing systems. Google Docs also provides real-time collaboration with other users.
  • Start Page provides you with your own start page to customize to include the tools such as e-mail, calendar, or another Web site.
  • Google Sites provides a Web site on which users may work together to build and edit Web applications. It brings together all the power of Google. You may embed videos, straight HTML, Google Gadgets, a spreadsheet from Google Docs, and so forth; it is only limited by the user's imagination. It also provides a central place to collaborate. The term wiki comes to mind when I work with Google Sites.

The Google Apps initiative is a powerful alternative to more established products such as SharePoint and Lotus Notes. A great selling point is that Google provides the entire behind-the-scenes infrastructure to run everything, and it stores the data (although you can choose to store data locally). Plus, everything runs within the browser window, so there is need to install anything additional on user computers.

Pricing is where Google hits another home run with a very low entry level; a small business can get up and running with Google Apps in no time and at no cost. The Standard Edition offers all of the previously discussed applications for all of your users. The Premier Edition comes with a $50 per user, per user fee. It provides everything in the Standard Edition, along with more tools for enterprise usage. This includes APIs for integrating with existing systems, policy management, more storage space, and customer support. In addition, an Education Edition is available for students.

My initial feeling is that Google Apps is a great offering, especially for small businesses without the capital to build such an infrastructure. Also, the push towards a mobile, disconnected workforce lends itself well to such an offering. I recommend checking out Google Apps: The Missing Manual by Nancy Conner, which offers in-depth information on every facet of the product.

At this point, Google Apps covers pretty much everything a group or company would need except for custom applications, and Google has an answer for that too.

Google App Engine

If the Google Apps paradigm is attractive, but it does not offer the applications you need, you can use the Google App Engine to build and deploy a custom application via Google-provided infrastructure. The Google App Engine gives developers access to Google's platform. It boasts the following features:

  • The Google App Engine SDK for building applications locally and then deploying to the Google App Engine platform.
  • A scalable server infrastructure.
  • Support for multiple languages, although Python is the only language supported at this time.
  • A robust data store via Bigtable, which is a distributed storage system that Google uses for dealing with its vast amount of data. It is designed to scale to a very large size, so it can easily accommodate your data.
  • A Web command console that allows you to manage your application.

The Google App Engine includes several APIs for leveraging Google functionality. This initially includes APIs for working with user accounts; Mail API for working with mail items; and other APIs for working with the data store and so forth. The Google App Engine integrates with all versions of Google Apps, so custom applications for teams can be built and deployed via the Google platform.

Unfortunately, the only supported language is Python, which is not a surprise considering it's no secret that Google uses Python quite a bit internally. While that is great for the Python community, it leaves many developers waiting for more and not wanting to learn another language. As a developer, it is intriguing to get a taste of how a very successful organization such as Google does things with features such as Bigtable and the Google file system.

Google's next move: World domination?

Many Microsoft haters applaud Google Apps and the Google App Engine. While I find it hard to believe Google Docs will force Microsoft Office off of its high perch, it does make me wonder about another behemoth rising in the industry. Like Microsoft, the tenets of Google are reaching into every imaginable space. Is its next target the operating system? Do we want one company controlling everything? It is good to have companies battling against each other because the consumer winds up being the winner.

Are you currently using Google Apps or the Google App Engine? If not, do you plan to use either product in the future? Share your thoughts with the Web Developer community.

Related TechRepublic resources

Tony Patton began his professional career as an application developer earning Java, VB, Lotus, and XML certifications to bolster his knowledge.

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About

Tony Patton has worn many hats over his 15+ years in the IT industry while witnessing many technologies come and go. He currently focuses on .NET and Web Development while trying to grasp the many facets of supporting such technologies in a productio...

18 comments
aaronsapp12
aaronsapp12

I have to say after reading this article i'm thinking about using google apps

Goober Bob
Goober Bob

While everybody is worrying about the Microsoft hegemony, Google has blossomed and now is the new beast in the industry.

yokkui
yokkui

The only concern I have is Gmail is still in its beta, and it's been like this for years!

charlie.deane
charlie.deane

I use it extensively. One of the best features is being able to use your own domain with their email server. Another one is the power of Google Docs, which for instance, allow you to import an application that you developed using Excel and share that application with others, turning what was a one-user app into a collaboration tool on the Web. I have never used the APIs SDK, but will explore...

Meesha
Meesha

Sure, there is no question that what Google is providing is part of the picture of the next wave for technology usage. However, Google is not the first nor alone in this direction. IBM Lotus Notes Domino in it's various iterations has been working towards this paradigm as well as maintaining corporate business requirements being backward compliant. It's always been a "true" collaboration platform. Now with it's version 8 taking much more advantage of the Eclipse platform providing usable components/widegets in the Web 2.0 environ and just to mention that version 8 now provides a fully acceptable MS Office productivity replacement, IBM is fully ready to compete with Google on anything on-line. IBM Lotus is geared to activities and life/business events while still in the control of the organization. GroupWise also provided for good corporate collaboration however it's not clear how they're handling the "web" side of things. Sharepoint is still not as mature as the others in the whole collaboration schema. Yet MS is diligently looking to SaaS to save them on all fronts - collaboration, business viability, unified messaging, etc. Any vendor who only has an on-line paradigm to offer such as Google's will very likely be relegated to small to medium size business. With all the legislation and acts under which data privacy and protection must be addressed, i.e. SOX, many organizations are just trying to stay a step ahead of these mandatory issues.

Justin James
Justin James

Do you trust Google enough to put all of your data on its servers on software you don't control? J.Ja

tony.taylor
tony.taylor

For my ministry I find it easy to share items for outreaches as well as easily maintain email infrastructure without the need of housing anything internally.

syschung
syschung

I think it's fine to use google personally, because we seldom put personal or business sensitive data in it. I have been using Gmail for years, and found that for every email I send or receive, it's scanned by the Google engine. For business, the company can't control security on their data. Or, is there any method to overcome this problem?

flez
flez

Agree with Yokkui, Gmail still has niggling bugs after years, and is no match for yahoo or hotmail in its user-friendliness or customisation.

mattohare
mattohare

ICQ and Yahoo Messenger never left beta as far as I know. MS stuff claims to leave beta, but goes on to what I can only politely call Gamma testing. Gamma being what gets discovered by paying users find when the product is supposed to be finished. Steve Balmer himself announced to a crowd in Portland Oregon that he'd personally look into a bug that's been in one product since version 1.0. Bug was still there five years (and three versions) later. I think the remaining beta label, with free price tag, absolves them from ever being finished and in good condition.

aspatton
aspatton

Domino is a powerful product that has lost marketshare with products like Sharepoint providing powerful solutions. However, they can never compete with Google's pricing model. Licensing costs along with hardware and the expertise to keep it running can be overwhelming, especially for smaller businesses.

mattohare
mattohare

I do have some stuff on Google Docs. I use it to collaberate with people in Oregon, Ontario and here in Northern Ireland. My problem has been that the Docs front page has no practical configuration. True I can change the colours, but I'd like to have an order of documents on the front page that is an order other than 'most recently used.' I get going with more than fifty documents, I'll be in a right state. LOL

programmeroo
programmeroo

I have used the Google site for language translation, it seems to work well. I would like to include this function in the back-end of a website. Does this function exist in the API?

Justin James
Justin James

... then only the smallest of companies will use it, most likely. That's still a huge market, of course. J.Ja

mattohare
mattohare

Stay in the free realm and you're grand. I bet you're into the $50/user for anything that really meets the business needs in an integrated fashion. I have to say, this reminds me a bit of the MS-Access debacle. A product that became an application platform beyond its designers expectations and its producers desires.

aspatton
aspatton

I agree, small companies are the ones who need infrastructure and can't afford it.

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