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Cloud email pays for itself in three months at Altium

Simon Sharwood

No IT professional would like the idea of 170 hours spent repairing a single inbox. But for Alan Perkins, CIO of electronics design software company Altium, this scenario was even worse than it sounds: the inbox in question belonged to the company’s President.

“We had seven mail servers and four domains,” Perkins told a Google-hosted Webinar yesterday, explaining Altium’s 300 users spread across 12 offices. “We were really struggling. Some people were really abusing email and had 20 megabyte or 50 megabyte file attachments. A huge proportion of our mail was being locally stored in .pst files and never backed up.”

The company decided to upgrade its email infrastructure and “looked at Exchange but found the cost was very, very expensive.”

“Then we looked at products, including Google, in the cloud and it quickly became a no-brainer,” Perkins said.

“It’s costing us $40,000 to $50,000 a year, a huge saving on the $600,000 we were quoted to install Exchange.” The $600,000 sum, Perkins points out, was for acquisition of Exchange and associated infrastructure alone and did not include maintenance of equipment or software.

Moving to the cloud has therefore reduced the complexity of Altium’s infrastructure while improving reliability of its email.

“Our email was not reliable,” Perkins said. “Google fixed that.” The cloud has also fixed the company’s growth strategy. “Google can scale,” Perkins told the Webinar. “Altium

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does not know how to scale.”

Unexpected benefits

Perkins has also found that moving to hosted email has produced other unexpected benefits, one of which is a near-total absence of Spam or false positives when legitimate email is identified as Spam. Security has improved as a result: Perkins says Google’s filters prevented 21,000 virus-laden attachments reaching the desktop in August 2009 alone. The chance of data loss has also been reduced, as all email now resides in the cloud instead of in .pst files on users’ desktops, and the new arrangement “helps me sleep better at night.”

Calendaring has also been a hit, for the unusual reason that the online calendars Google’s system offers are available beyond Altium’s walls. Perkins outlined how this function has enabled friends and family of Altium employees to insert family functions into workers’ calendars, helping them to preserve work/life balance by offering reminders of these events!

Single-site browser use

Another interesting aspect of Altium’s Gmail adoption is its use of single-site browsers, a feature of Google Chrome and the Firefox plugin Prism which enables the creation of windows lacking navigation tools or an address bar. Single-site browsers appear as a distinct icon on the Windows task bar and the ALT-TAB dialog, making web apps behave more like desktop applications.

Perkins himself has adopted this technology for Gmail.

“One of the problems I have is I that when I have 20 to 30 browser windows open I cannot find my email,” he said. A single site browser has helped address this issue.

“A lot of people are doing it here – I do it myself,” he told the Webinar. Staff are free to chose this approach or other email clients. Some even chose to continue using Outlook or Eudora, from sheer force of habit!

While the company has not yet needed to use the search and discovery functions (provided by Google’s Postinin products) in the context of legal action, Perkins says they are already paying off in the unexpected benefit of lower accounting fees.

“Our auditors can do more substantive testing and less compliance testing, which means a cheaper audit,” he said. The availability of all emails from a single search interface is also helping the company meet its obligations under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Another unlooked-for outcome has been improved collaboration. The company has embraced the instant messaging functions of Google Talk happily, thanks to the fact that chats can be archived alongside email. Users have also explored Google Docs and found it offers a new way to work the company previously lacked.

Perkins says the company scarcely realised how inefficient its previous practice of circulating documents by email had become and says Google Docs has “changed our paradigm.”

“Recently we had a document I was working on with a product manager about a new behavioural process for our salesforce,” he explained. “I wrote the document and shared it with the salesperson, who was turning it into a brief for the salesforce as we worked. One night I was at home working on the document and so was the company President. The salesperson was editing the document while the President was asking questions and I was answering them.” This work all took place inside a browser, in real time.

Perkins said the combined effect of savings on implementation, infrastructure acquisition and productivity improvements mean the company has achieved ROI on the project in three months.

“We have been delighted with what we have achieved.”