When it comes to Google Apps, I’m certifiable

Back in mid-2007 I deployed my first instance of Google Apps, replacing a Microsoft Exchange 2003 server. It was a controversial choice back then — Google Apps was still pretty new and it wasn’t yet clear whether Google was going to stick with the platform and build it out. But there were several deciding factors that pushed me to an Apps deployment:

  • I was working at a nonprofit, so Google Apps was free for us; worst case I could always fall back to the in-house system
  • Our Microsoft Exchange 2003 server was constantly running out of space and was a pain to backup
  • We lived under a monstrous waterfall of spam that required a special appliance outside the Exchange box that worked well but was costly
  • Our Internet connection was relatively slow and outrageously expensive, so handling all the mail traffic in-house was painful, especially when the in-house web site was what we really wanted to share with the world, not our email system
  • Our users wanted to send and receive larger and larger files via email, which only strained all of the above factors further

We made the switch, I uploaded a bunch of mail using Google’s then-primitive migration tools,  and I put everyone onto the web-based interface — no Outlook allowed. We did trainings and I spent a lot of time helping users get acclimated to the new way of doing things. This was before drag-and-drop email attachments in Gmail. It was before full compatibility with external calendar invitations. It was before Chrome.

And I was immediately hooked.

Why Go Google?

From an IT perspective, this Google Apps thing was awesome. There were no servers to own, nothing to back up, nothing to manage — aside from creating and deleting accounts. The users had far more space than they’d ever had (7GB at the time) and far more space than I could have ever offered locally at a reasonable price. The system was accessible everywhere, and no matter where you got your mail or looked at your calendar, it functioned the same way. And, as a nonprofit, it was all free! We even started using Google Docs right away, sharing selected spreadsheet data with remote workers and volunteers, allowing for real-time collaboration that at the time was mind-blowingly simple yet powerful.

Since then the Google Apps platform has matured with better features, a more homogenized interface in the apps, better administration tools, more reporting, more granular controls, and great (paid) add-ons for email archiving and spam control. And since then I’ve deployed Google Apps 4 more times, not to mention personal use. My most recent migration was last year, again dropping Microsoft Exchange 2003 and Outlook to go all-cloud all the time.

And then there was this past weekend.

Getting Certified

After managing and evangelizing Google Apps all these years, I stumbled across a certification program for Google Apps nerds like me: the Google Apps Certified Deployment Specialist. So I dug through the Study Guide, re-read a lot of stuff I knew, learned a few new tricks Google has developed in the last couple of years, and paid my testing fee.

The weird part was the testing method. Rather than send you to a local testing center — where you might sit for Microsoft or Citrix or VMware or other vendor exams — this one is done at home or in your office. You can take the test anywhere you have a live Internet connection, a Windows or Mac machine, and a special USB webcam they make you buy. Total cost is about the same as those other exams, but you can schedule it on weekends in evenings and take it at home. They proctor the exam through the webcam and special software.

It worked great. The only thing I was “corrected” on during the exam was the fact that I started to read some of the questions out loud, to puzzle them out audibly. That’s verboten, probably because they fear you’d read the questions out loud so you could either record the questions (and give them away to others wanting to take the exam) or ask someone else nearby to provide an answer. It’s too bad, because I like to “talk out” technical solutions. Oh, well.

61 questions after starting, I had passed the exam, so now I’m certified! It’s the first major cert I’ve picked up since the “good old days” of Windows NT 4 and Lotus Notes and Domino. And it’s fun to have a Google certification, perhaps because it’s so rare. My certificate was numbered “1298”, which suggests there were less than 1,300 people certified when I took the exam. That’s cool — I’m in a group smaller than my high school census (except we’re all certified Google Apps pros!).

Can you use Google Apps in a healthcare environment?

I may need to address this further in a future post, but the short answer is yes. People freak out about HIPAA (as they well should) but the key thing to consider is how you use your email system. Bottom line: If you don’t store or share PHI (protected health information) in your email system, then HIPAA rules don’t apply. And for those that are using email systems (of any kind) to share or transmit patient data, I have a question: Are you out of your mind? Email is a promiscuous platform by design — it’ll “sleep” with anyone and it’s 1 degree away from every email account worldwide — so why would you ever push patient information through it? If it helps, I’ve actually addressed the Apps/HIPAA discussion elsewhere before.

Sidebar: I may also have to write a post someday (really a rant) about email footers with lots of legal language in them — a silly practice that has no force of law behind it. If you want to put in a “please don’t share this” message down there, that’s cool, but stop trying to create unilateral contracts with your footers — that’s not a thing.

All that said, I do think Google needs to rethink their stance on signing HIPAA Business Associate Agreements (they won’t sign them). They either need to start signing or they need to post a definitive position paper on HIPAA issues related to Google Apps. Microsoft has shown a willingness to sign BAAs for Office 365 services, which makes their service more attractive, despite their downtime problems. Google has done a good job addressing the overall security of Google Apps, but they need to go a step further, to assuage the fears of healthcare executives and Boards that don’t understand technology very well.

What’s next?

For now I’m a happy Google Apps administrator, still learning, still sharing tips with users new to the platform. Oh, and I’m a Certified Deployment Specialist, of course! So if you’ve got questions about going Google in your healthcare environment (or any business, really) just let me know. I can answer some questions in the comments or we can take the conversation offline.

Health IT Links and Notes: 2012-12-31

Here are my favorite links from the Health IT and general IT sector today. Follow me on Twitter to get most of these links real-time, albeit with less commentary.

OCHIN awarded federal grant to help community health centers with HIT
OCHIN has scored a 3-year $775,000 annual grant to provide services to client clinics dealing with PCMH, MU, EHR implementations and so forth. Good for them. But I wonder whether the client clinics might be better off struggling with some or all of these issues directly. After all, they’ll have to change their cultures to really develop a viable PCMH program, and you can’t buy culture. Furthermore, if you think Health IT changes are going to stop after PCMH and MU, you’re dreaming. Plan to hire IT capacity in-house if you can, because you have got to have internal change and technical capacity.

Vampire data and 3 other cyber security threats for 2013
I’m always a little suspicious of a security services vendor trumpeting all the threats that will destroy your business if you don’t hire someone like them. But in truth the threats are real — it’s just a question of how much risk you’re really facing in your situation. Still, the threats and issues to consider here include:

  • Watch out for risks posed by data you aren’t aware of or can’t easily monitor or control (what they’re calling “vampire data”), including cloud-hosted stuff or old data stores you’ve forgotten about
  • If you don’t already have lawyers and others on retainer to help you in a breach situation, you really should because you don’t want to be scrambling to hire them after a breach
  • You really need to be logging stuff and reviewing the logs, folks (easier said than done)
  • Hackers are as much about disrupting your business as stealing your data these days
  • Just start publishing your breaches, even if it doesn’t involve ePHI

Analysis: Microsoft Is Squandering Its Hyper-V Opportunity
Critics love the Hyper-V included with Windows Server 2012. But it’s not taking off because of several strategic mistakes Microsoft has made and continues making. Meanwhile, VMware remains king of virtualization for most businesses.

How to Say ‘Yes’ to BYOD
Saying “no way in hell” to smartphones, tablets and other employee-owned gear in the enterprise strikes me as a bigger risk than saying “yes, but with controls” and this audio panel discusses how you can say yes and feel good about it. About 15 minutes long.

How MiGym plans to quantify the health club workout
Finally. Pretty soon you’ll be able to take your smartphone to the gym and capture workout data from the machines already there, then sling that data into an online PHR (like Microsoft’s almost-forgotten HealthVault). My own thinking is that there’s a future for CHCs in the health club space. I mean what are we doing, disease management or health promotion? Keep an eye on gyms, health data devices (the “quantified self” movement), PHRs, and developments in payer preferences for preventive care with results.

A new Apple product calendar

From here, at the end of Apple’s participation in the Macworld conference entirely, I suspect we will see them develop a revised annual cycle of product updates and announcements in various categories. What might that calendar look like?

Well, first off it won’t be a rigid calendar — it will have a give-and-take that’s more helpful for software development projects. Dumping Macworld gives them control over both the size and timing of each announcement, rather than being tied to venues, dates or formats dictated by a third party. That said, Apple would be well-advised to bite off projects in 12-month increments. Projects that run much longer than 9 months can easily start to lose focus and experience endless scope creep.

In any case, I’m betting on a roughly annual product cycle that might look something like this…

Continue reading “A new Apple product calendar”

My own Macworld 2009 predictions (updated)

Hey, you don’t have to be a paid pundit to play the Apple prediction game — anyone can play. Here are my own predictions for this year’s Macworld, as I tweeted them a few hours before the keynote.

Please note that, unless specifically called out in the prediction, I am not predicting any ship dates or prices, though everything will be out before September 2009.

Now updated with my results.

  • 17″ unibody MacBook Pro, sealed battery. Battery must be sealed for structural integrity of a super-thin/wide body.
    PREDICTION: People will bitch about the battery thing, but the thinness and sexiness of this model will shut most people up. And please — how many times do you really change batteries on your laptop each day? If multiple batteries are that important to you, then get the 15″ model and be done with it. Or get an outboard battery. Clearly you are an unusual case.
    RESULTS: Nailed it! Sure, they didn’t talk about structural integrity, focusing instead upon space constrictions. But I consider that close enough. And don’t take this away from me — I’ll need this win later as I lose on several more predictions!

Continue reading “My own Macworld 2009 predictions (updated)”

WiMAX vs. Cable Modem in Anchorage

Right now I spend about $150/month for high speed Internet service combined with cable TV, phone, long distance and so on. I’m not happy about this, partially due to the price, partially because I don’t want all those extra services. So I’ve started looking for “pure Internet” alternatives, and given the choices in my area, it appears the best option is a relatively new wireless Internet service available from AT&T Alascom (sort of related to AT&T) in Anchorage, Alaska.

AT&T’s offering is a WiMAX service, the new long-range wireless Internet infrastructure touted as the Next Big Thing by several players, including Sprint / Clearwire / Xohm, Intel, AT&T (at least the Alascom part of it) and other smaller developers, especially those serving rural and smaller markets.

If WiMAX works well, I can dump my cable modem service, save money and cut my copper ties at home. But any way you slice it, the service will be slower. Can I accept slower service to get just the features I want and save money — or will the siren song of copper speed keep me from straying?

Below, I share my findings — so far — in a video presentation. If you’re considering a switch like this, you might be interested. The video runs about 16 minutes — or you can download the presentation slides via PDF (link below).

[flashvideo image=video/pres-cover.jpg height=380 width=480 filename=video/wimax-cable-modem-pres.flv /]

Got comments or questions? Share them below. I’d be curious to hear about other WiMAX experiences out there.

A great apology

Monday’s Gmail outage scared the crap out of me.

I just moved my entire company over to Google Apps — away from Microsoft Exchange — about 6 weeks ago. One of the scariest parts is the fact that you have no control over the server or services that actually make your e-mail and calendars and everything else “go.” So when e-mail goes down, I’m pretty much as helpless as a basic user, and that stings a bit.

Plus, as a free (“education”) customer, all I can do is send e-mail to support (duh — can’t do that when Gmail is down!) or post messages on their support forum. Sure, there’s a support phone number, but when millions of accounts go offline worldwide, your call won’t get through. Keep that in mind if you evaluate Google Apps. With the exception of today, the experience has been great. But now I’m on edge.

A little good news, though… Google has apologized. Sincerely. Openly. Without dodging the issue or blamestorming. There aren’t many companies that could do this.

Kudos to Google for this kind of clear, honest and authentic apology.

I already feel a little better.

Brief update… and a question

I’ve been remiss in writing for Gravity Medium lately, due to a bunch of things going on in my paid professional life.

We’re still in the midst of a strategic reconfiguration at the office, yet that seems to be slowing down now, as… well, I can’t really explain it without betraying confidences. Basically the process of reviewing the company’s structure and mission has stalled out and I don’t know when, or if, it will re-engage. I’m hopeful that we can startup again before June, but who knows. It’s been quite the roller coaster and at the moment I just want to get off and find a Sno Cone.


Separately — and way more fun — I’ve been working on moving my company and all its employees over to Google Apps, in the process dumping our Microsoft Exchange e-mail server and Outlook (at least officially).

So here’s the question: Do you have experience with moving your company over to Google Apps, especially away from Exchange and Outlook? If so, I’d like to hear about it either in the comments or via e-mail.

Right now I’m still in the planning and early-adopter transition phase, but in the end I have to migrate about 40 people to the service (which is tiny, I know), moving most of their archived mail to the service. I’ve already run into a couple mail migration glitches and I’m still figuring out how to handle public folders.

In the end, I expect to save anywhere from a few thousand to several thousand dollars per year (electricity, server upkeep, backup management, software licensing, staff time) and get some intangible cultural benefits from pushing the company further online. Instant messaging integrated with the web e-mail client is compelling, as is vast e-mail storage space and the document sharing features of Google Docs.

So let me know if you’re a Google Apps shop. What works? What doesn’t work? Send me your cheers and your jeers for the service. I can share my experiences, too, if that’s helpful.