Earlier this week, Google announced announced a new service for enterprise users that syncs an existing Exchange account with Google Apps. In so doing, this service (dubbed Google Message Continuity) provides redundancy in the security and availability of email, contacts, and calendars. It also provides an easier path towards the cloud for companies currently entrenched in an on-premises Exchange system. From a practical standpoint, this seems like it could be an extremely important option for companies that are currently tied to Exchange for historical reasons, or who are interested in moving into the cloud with a minimally perturbative transition. If that describes you, head over to the Postini site (a service primarily known for spam filtering that Google purchased recently), and get started.
For those of us who don't rely on Exchange, Message Continuity still represents an import step, I think, both in what it says about data security and reliability, and in what it suggests about moving away from entrenched legacy systems. Before diving into that, I just want to go into a little more detail about how the system works. Basically, Google Message Continuity wraps around an existing Exchange setup, keeping a cloud-based version of the locally-hosted Exchange server. Generally, users are expected to interact directly with Exchange, but in the event of an outage, either expected or not, users can instead access their account through Gmail directly. At all times, the data is kept synchronized between the two servers. So with that out of the way, why might you care, even if you don't currently use Exchange?
Security and reliability are more than just feeling comfortable
The first thing that I'd like to highlight is that Google is selling this service as a way to bring added reliability to an existing local server. The thing that I find interesting about this, is that I think many companies tend to use Exchange because it is perceived as a "more secure" solution relative to services like Google Apps. I can certainly understand why on premises solutions *feel* better: the data is stored on a server that you have physical access to; if something goes wrong, you're able to take care of it yourself; you know exactly what types of backups you're making and where those backups live.
While all of those things are probably true, none of them mean that your system is actually more secure; it just means that you feel more comfortable about their security. Much like you, I've never been in Google's server rooms, and I've never talked to anyone there about their backup cycle and redundancy, but if I had to place my bets, I'm guessing they're more competent than the local IT guy or I am.
The data that you keep on your computer at home (or business) may feel safer than data you put in the cloud, but between risks of corrupted hard drives, a disaster in your home, or theft (a friend of mine though all of his personal data was secure since it was backed up on three computers, until someone broke into his apartment and stole all three computers), there's a pretty good chance that your data is safer in the cloud.
With this particular option, Google Message Continuity is offering added reliability through redundancy, which can certainly provide you with the best of both worlds. But if you read between the lines, what they're really saying is that your on premises data isn't as reliable as you think it is.
Bridges to the cloud
The other interesting thing about Google Message Continuity is what it says about ways to break out of legacy entanglements. A huge amount of data and infrastructure is currently tied up in closed system, be it in the form of services like Exchange or proprietary data formats like those used by Office, Photoshop, and many other software packages. While these types of closed systems are great for software providers, and occasionally can provide a better user experience, they can also be extremely difficult to leave down the road.
Services like Google Message Continuity, while requiring additional infrastructure at the start, represent a way to seamless transition from old systems to new. In this case, the service provides a specific adaptor between two services (Exchange and Google Apps), but more general solutions exist in other cases. Services like Dropbox provide a similar experience for seamlessly transitioning data between a variety of local sources and a cloud-based system. A number of services also exist to better bridge between Micrsoft Office and Google Docs or Zoho. These types of services are rarely ideal, but if you feel locked in to some kind of legacy system, it's worth looking around for these types of bridges to get out. Furthermore, when choosing new software, it's important to think about what bridges away from those solutions may exist in the future, as your needs change and alternatives become more attractive.