Google Apps for Education and Scaling Down for Small Schools

I cannot begin to express just how great Google Apps for Education has been for our organization and for me in particular. We are a small school with just 550 students and 75 staff. We did not have student email until Google Apps for Education came along. Cost and management had always been the main issues preventing it. As the only IT guy for our District I had my hands full managing 75 Exchange accounts. I did not want to have to manage over 600. With Google Apps, a tech savvy teacher setup the domain and imported the students from our SIS system and then told me about it after the fact. And that was fine with me. It was the perfect solution for our small school. Free, easy to manage and thin client friendly.

When Google announced free message security it was just after I had migrated us from Exchange 2003 to 2007. We had spam issues and I was frustrated with the learning curve on Exchange 2007. I was spending too much time on infrastructure and wanted to spend more time on projects that were closer to the classroom. We had been using Google Apps and Gmail with students for 2 years and had been very happy with it. In one fell swoop I realized I could get rid of Exchange (the one server that kept me up nights), free up a server and greatly improve our spam and anti-virus filtering.  And I could do it all for free.

Not until midway through the migration did other benefits present themselves. My users were trained on and are now using the web interface so I won’t be supporting Outlook on the desktop anymore. I also won’t be upgrading a significant number of users to Office 2007/10. Google docs with OpenOffice as backup are our new office apps now. My boss discovered chat and how to get instant tech support from me from her gmail account. Now our collaboration platform is constantly being updated and expanded and I don’t have to do anything to make that happen. Our students, staff and teachers are all on the same platform so they can share and help each other use, learn and discover the tools, features and functionality of Google Apps.

Not that there haven’t been issues. The Google focus for Education is aimed at large organizations. IT specific documentation is written for enterprise IT shops and the education support is geared towards end users. There is no happy middle ground for the mainstream edtech community. We are relegated to Google groups and the CETPA listserv to find our own answers and ask for help from other users while Google points us at Partners if we have any complex questions like migration (who isn’t migrating?) or single sign on (who doesn’t want that?).

In fact many of the features that I would like to have like Single Sign On (SSO) or Active Directory Password Sync, Domain Contacts management, inter-domain trusts, the mythical gDrive and password reset Google leaves up to Partners to sell. While I have managed to configure some essential functions like AD sync (minus the Password) is is generally accomplished despite sparse documentation and mainly through trial and error. Some things, like Domain Contacts management, do not have free solutions (that I can find) and so I use work arounds. I don’t know about you but I’m getting really good at CSV import/export.

Again, Google’s solution to most of the core IT management features is third party Partner solutions that charge for features per mailbox. In most instances, these charges quickly negate any costs savings I gained from moving from Exchange (with its very robust management tools) to Goole Apps. The one thing that is sorely lacking in a free tool for small schools is Active Directory Password sync. I know the Directory Sync tool was recently updated to support hashes but in typical Google support fashion, there is no documentation (again, that I can find as of today) that says if this update will sync passwords from AD to Apps. SSO would be nice too and there is a reference implementation for it that I got off the CETPA listserv but again, the documentation is sparse and I have not had time to spend on trial and error config yet. My one hope on this front, aside from money raining down from the sky, is that Google Apps for enterprise documentation did take a major leap forward over the past year and perhaps it will again one day soon. Google is also releasing and updating tools like Directory Sync and Outlook Sync that are making the process much easier on IT.

The one area I was very excited about even before starting our staff migration was Message Archiving. eDiscovery is becoming more and more of a concern so I am keen to implement Google’s message archiving solution. Originally I had planned to provide tiered archiving levels for users depending on their job classifications however I found out today that I can’t mix and match the 1 and 10 year archiving services within a single domain. This is disappointing from a cost perspective. Even more disappointing from a cost perspective is that while I am eligible for a significant discount to the service, my small user count (75 staff) is apparently insufficient to meet Google’s arbitrary minimum annual charge of $1500. Because of this small school tax, I’ll only see half the education discount that large schools see. To add further insult, there is a $900 one time implementation fee (we get 10% off of that) so my initial annual cost is almost double the recurring charge. Call me cynical, but I am guessing that $900 setup fee is for someone to go in and flip a bit to turn on our service.

I realize that $1500 for 10 years of message archiving for 75 users is not a bad price. I just hate it that when it comes to the one premium service everyone is going to need in the immediate future, Google doesn’t have fair discount pricing for small organizations (yes, I know message security is free for now, that was the hook, wasn’t it?). Another case in point is the cost of more storage for Google Docs. I am going to be able to add 1GB of storage to my personal Gmail account for a quarter, but as a small school it will cost me $3.50 to add the same amount of storage to my user’s accounts. I understand SLA and uptime and all that, but really for my Students do I really need 5 9’s of uptime on their docs? I would bump every student to 2GB and stop handing out flash drives if Google would take a minute to realize there is a difference between the needs of a 30,000 user organization and a small school.

There are hundreds of small school districts in California and thousands across the nation and despite my rant I firmly believe that Google Apps for Education presents a compelling, if not magical, value proposition to the small organization. I would not have moved my District to the platform if I thought otherwise. I can’t really argue with free but sometimes I just wish Google would think about scaling down to our size, instead of always scaling up.

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