Google's Dave Girouard on Google-ization

Google became a cultural phenomenon and Wall Street star by being the right company at the right time. Its Web search engine, with its elegantly simple interface, helped bring order to a global bazaar of information and services — the Internet — as it was revolutionizing how people live and work.

Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again, Google executives now want to be players in what they believe will be the next game-changing event in technology: the transition to software as a service.

With SaaS, customers pay for access to network-based software that a third party runs and maintains. They no longer buy copies of software to run on their own computers.

A year ago, the company launched Google Apps, a SaaS offering that includes office and collaboration tools such as email, electronic calendars and Google Docs for creating and sharing documents.

Google offers a basic version free and Premier Edition, a business-oriented version with advanced management and security features, for $50 per user per year.

Government figures prominently in Google’s enterprise business plans. The company is bolstering its federal office and establishing relationships with major systems integrators in the market. But will government technology executives be willing or able to trust core parts of their operations to the Web giant? Federal Computer Week spoke with Dave Girouard, vice president and general manager of Google’s enterprise business, about the benefits and risks of SaaS and the company’s plans for becoming a bigger player in the federal information technology community. Girouard is a keynote speaker at the FOSE trade show, held April 1-3 in Washington. The 1105 Government Information Group owns FOSE and FCW.

FCW: Can you cite some examples that illustrate Google’s current engagements with government customers?
Girouard: We have in excess of 100 different customers in the broader federal marketplace.

We started with the search products, which have gone through some of the certifications that you need to be acceptable to some of these agencies for security audits and such.

There are hundreds if not thousands of Google search appliances deployed across the federal government. More recently, our geo-related products - Google Earth and Google Maps - have become extremely valuable for a lot of agencies, not just federal but state and local.

[They have] allowed much broader access to geospatial data, which a lot of organizations are finding very powerful.

FCW: Are there any government customers for Google Apps?
Girouard: We have one fairly sizable one we can’t disclose yet. But Google Apps is coming up on its first birthday. It’s in its very early days.

We have more than half a million small businesses that are using Google Apps and another couple thousand or so sign up every day. We have thousands of universities who have deployed it for their students. We have probably a hundred or more Fortune 1,000-size companies who are in various stages of pilots and rollouts, so I think 2008 will be a big year for that.

We’re getting a lot of interest in state and local governments, which are budget constrained.

They have a real need to deliver these types of capabilities to a large employee base. I think we’ll probably see some pretty good traction there quickly. As different agencies begin to get more comfortable with hosted data and software as a service, I hope that’ll change very quickly.

FCW: What motivates organizations to sign up for Google Apps?
Girouard: First of all, it’s about capability. It’s a set of tools that allows people to work toget her much more productively and quickly, whether they are in the same building or spread around the world, whether they speak the same language or speak different languages.

The raw capabilities of these Web-based tools to allow people to work together as a team is the crux of what’s good. From a Google perspective, it is always about information access.

The whole model of [Internet] cloud computing where the functionality and the data is stored in the cloud and you can access from anywhere - and, by the way, all your colleagues can access from anywhere — really opens up a set of things we’re only beginning to discover.

That, to me, is the big thing, but of course the No. 2 reason is cost. This stuff costs about a tenth of what it costs for the traditional [licensing] model. There’s nothing to install, no data center to worry about, no software on the client to manage.

That is a very powerful solution for organizations that have tight IT budgets. They have a bunch of other problems they need to solve that are specific to their agency.

FCW: What concerns do you hear from enterprise customers considering Google Appsstyle offerings?
Girouard: The questions that people would ask and the objections they’ve had have fallen by the wayside one by one. It used to be about broadband.

You’d hear, “Our connections aren’t fast enough for a Web-based application.” People don’t ask that very much anymore. They believe that their networks are good and reliable enough.

The next thing would be about whether Web apps can really be interactive and responsive.

Web apps are typically thought of as good enough to fill out a form and some small tasks but not as something you can use to get your day-to-day work done. The Gmail [Google’s free e-mail service] launch in 2004 was a big day for changing that perspective. Web apps can be just as responsive and useful and interactive as a client app.

And then you get into the off-line issue, that the Web app is only useful when you’re connected.

This is a very classic question we get. I think in reality most people live in a world where they’re on a network — either at home or at work or in a Starbucks — most of the time. But it’s not a trivial matter. By the end of this year, it’s not going to be an issue whatsoever. We’ve introduced a technology we refer to as Google Gears, which is essentially the capability to bring any Web application off-line. We introduced it as open source available to any application developer, but it will be the underpinning of taking all of Google’s Apps off-line when necessary. You’ll see that roll out in 2008.

The last issue, which is a very big one, is data security and trust. They are related. Is data secure if it’s in someone else’s data center? That’s in my mind the last frontier. The technical issues are largely dispensed with. It’s happening so fast at the small-business level that it is inevitable to move up the food chain fast because the value is unquestionable.

The utility for users is unquestionable, and it’s happened again and again over history. The obvious example, which is talked about a lot in Nicholas Carr’s new book [“The Big Switch”] is electricity itself. One hundred years ago, most companies produced their own electricity. It was a radical thought to shut down your own generators and plug into a grid that was provided by some utility. You don’t really think about that anymore.

A lot of computing is headed in the same direction.

Not all parts of computing and certainly not all today, but the basics like e-mail and file sharing and communicating will. It’s provisioned much more economically by companies like Google that do it fo a living.

FCW: Are contracts and service-level agreements (SLAs) sufficient to address customer concerns about SaaS?
Girouard: They’re necessary but not sufficient. You need SLAs. We have those. The contract elements of what we will warrant and such are all important.

We have certifications about how you control data when employees have access to data. Those are all necessary. We have our bases well-covered there.

What we don’t have yet is enough certification so that the conversation [with prospective customers] doesn’t have to be as long. We’ve gone through several large security audits.

Every large organization, whether it’s federal or commercial, has a security team that has a process they go through before putting data anywhere outside the organization. I hope to get to the point to where it is a given, where you don’t have to think about these kinds of audits.

FCW: Are those audits based on standards?
Girouard: They are mostly one-off, proprietary audits. There are not great standards. There is WebTrust and SAS 70 [Statement on Auditing Standards No. 70, Service Organizations]. SAS 70 just says, “Tell us what processes you have in place, and a third party will verify this,” but it doesn’t say really what good procedures are. That’s something that we have a lot of interest in and want to potentially work on, what some really good standard ought to be for [SaaS].

FCW: Are there any applications that you think are definitely not candidates for the SaaS method of delivery?
Girouard: Today, yes. At some point in the future, no. The commodity stuff, the basics that every company needs, are increasingly readily available from [SaaS] vendors like us. The things that don’t make sense to me are the proprietary applications that you build for your business or organization, such as a complex trading program that an investment bank on Wall Street develops just to have an edge in trading. Today, they’re going to run better on their own systems.

Having said that, [SaaS] isn’t always going to be delivered as it is today. It can be compute infrastructure made available whenever you need it. I see it as an adoption curve. There are very obvious things that make sense for [SaaS] today, and eventually almost everything will be. But there’s a saying in IT that nothing ever goes away.

Mainframe computers aren’t going away, client servers didn’t go away. So I don’t think it will ever be 100 percent, but I think most things will be amenable to [SaaS].

FCW: What direction are you headed for new product offerings?
Girouard: The [SaaS] baseline is going to expand.

There is almost no limit to where we can take these sets of capabilities in terms of adding new applications as well as opening up the infrastructure for third parties to develop their own applications.

You’re going to see a lot of both. The ones that Google is developing itself are not yet ready for the enterprise. There are a lot of things that you are going to see soon. You’re also going to see some raw capabilities that span these applications, such as machine translation, where someone sends you an e-mail in French, and you read it in English. We’ll add a few of them during 2008.

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