Switching to Google Apps Without Tears

While much has been said about Google Apps for domains as an alternative to Microsoft Exchange or Office Live, Google’s suite is most compelling for distributed businesses or groups that do not want to center their email and collaboration around Microsoft’s desktop software.

With Gmail’s outstanding spam filter, document collaboration, easy configuration and reliable email independent of the website host, there’s a lot to like about Google Apps. But it also has its quirks.

I recently deployed Google Apps to our nonprofit organization of 10 users, taking advantage of Google’s program that offers the free Education edition to qualified US-based 501(c)3 nonprofits. While overall it has been a positive experience, there have been some bumps in getting our widely distributed team away from the email provided by our web host and fully up and running with Google.

Some tips for painless switching to Google if you’re not already a network guru…

Know your hosting. Your best chance of a successful switch to Google Apps is if you also manage the DNS for your domain, from both the registrar and the web host (even if they’re one and the same). You will need to verify the domain once you register it with Google, so make sure you can either change a CNAME record or have access to the website FTP to upload a file. Without this ability, you may be stuck right out of the gate. Start with a MX Lookup tool such as this one, and make sure that you understand and have control over the MX settings at the result you get. Allow 24-48 hours for the change to fully propagate, but from my experience in changing MX records on 3 different already-existing domains the change was nearly instant.

Help users with the switch. Don’t be surprised if you have to spend some time getting users familiar with Gmail’s different approach to email. For those users who have only heard about Gmail but have never experienced it, urge them to watch the videos at the Google Apps Training Center. People will not change their habits easily. Introduce Google Apps in such a way that you are expecting minimal adjustments on their part.

Understandably, some of my colleagues found screens like this one, taken directly from the “Configuration instructions” link in their Settings, to be confusing. They weren’t sure where they were supposed to use our domain name, and where they were to use “gmail.com”

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For folks who have lived their email life in Outlook, the change to Google’s web interface can be jarring at first. Have patience as they figure out how to search, archive, label and understand the conversation view. Remember, those with @gmail.com email addresses made that choice on their own. Those with email addresses through Google Apps may have had the Gmail thrust upon them.

Most of our users accessed their old email via POP, so they were already storing their email locally. With the Premier or Education editions, Google offers an easy IMAP migration tool that works quite nicely for email stored on servers. Otherwise, I’m told this tool works for migrating IMAP email in the free version.

Use the test email address to ease transition. Google gives everyone a perfectly functioning email address right out of the gate, before the MX records have been changed, in the form of [email protected]

After creating the new user accounts, log into the soon-to-be-old email admin page and set incoming mail to go to their soon-to-be-old-mailbox as well as forward to the new Google test address. This way, users who are ready to switch to Google are able to send and receive email in the new interface, while others who need more time to configure their email clients aren’t losing access to incoming mail on the old server. By the time the switch is flipped, everyone is ready and there should be no surprises or lost messages.

Not all Google calendars are created equal. Calendars and documents in Google accounts and Google apps may look alike, but they are separate islands. If a user has a Google account with the same email address as their new Google apps email address, it’s impossible to merge their old calendar cleanly into the new one.

If they log in to their Google Account calendar (calendar.google.com) they’ll get a screen like this:

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You can either separate the Google Account calendar from the Google Apps calendar by changing the email address on the Google Account one, or inexplicably, “Start using a null calendar.” Null? I don’t get it either. There is no option to bring data from the old calendar to the new.

The situation is a little better if you have existing Google Documents. Google Apps offers users a one-time chance to bring documents from Google Accounts to Google Apps (in the Documents settings):

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Have you switched to Google Apps? Share any migration tips & tricks in the comments.