G-Suite (Formerly Google Apps)

Having a reliable email service is important for any organisation operating in today’s world. The focus for Communication Infrastructure was predominantly on the hardware and physical infrastructure. Email infrastructure was mentioned in the context of a prior consideration of Office 365. This article explores G Suite, which has been adopted as a new platform for Clayton Church as of March 2017. Acting on a pro bono basis, XBOP/I played an instrumental role in the migration off the old platform to the new cloud-based service.

G Suite Unpacked

G Suite is actually much more than just email. Take a look at this cool visual representation of the core apps within the portfolio:

Gmail, the Google email service is merely one of many capabilities that are now available to the church staff and leaders. Initially, the focus and learning adoption for staff will be Gmail, but for the technology savvy workers, they will undoubtedly explore the other features quickly at their own pace.

Most people are familiar with Gmail, given they use it for their personal email accounts. Google Hangouts as the chat window typically found in the bottom left corner of a Gmail screen, offers instant messaging capabilities that offer greater timely communication methods. That Gmail have done a great job over the years of integrating all their apps between each other is a testament to the power of the total portfolio that makes up G Suite. Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google Docs and Google Forms all leverage the underlying storage that is Google Drive. Google Calendar. To the list above, we need also call out Google+, Google Sites, Google Groups, and Cloud Search. These tools span the three feature sets of Communicate, Store and Collaborate.

These apps across the sets of Communicate, Store and Collaborate are all available to individuals using personal accounts, whereas G Suite bundles them all together for the expressed purpose of providing businesses with an integrated experience. For individuals, the adoption and use of any one of the apps is likely to be ad-hoc. Gmail would be a typical first experience into the world of Google. I recall during my days of study that the university group learning environment invariably led us to create separate Google Groups for each syndicate that formed for each subject. Google Docs and Sheets powered the collaborative nature of our work, whereby we systematically added content for each of allocated sections to the one document, proofing and editing it into the final product.

However, the final feature set of Manage is what sets G Suite apart from the personal and individual adoption of the various Google apps. The Admin console brings it all together in a corporate sense, where each user account is defined and settings and policies are determined. The Admin tool is the glue and heart that binds G Suite together. Google Vault provides protection and archiving facilities which demonstrate their worth in situations of auditing or even facing a lawsuit. Mobile Management is the newest app introduced by Google into the G Suite portfolio, enabling device management and security for employee mobile devices.

The full listing of Google apps is therefore:

  1. Communicate
    1. Gmail
    2. Hangouts
    3. Calendar
    4. Google+
  2. Store
    1. Drive
  3. Collaborate
    1. Docs
    2. Sheets
    3. Forms
    4. Slides
    5. Sites
    6. Cloud Search
  4. Manage
    1. Admin
    2. Vault
    3. Mobile Management

G Suite for Not For Profits

G Suite is offered to businesses on a per-user subscription pricing model. As per their pricing plan page, three tiers of pricing are available:

  1. Basic ($5/user/month)
  2. Business ($10/user/month)
  3. Enterprise (unlisted, but priced on demand)

For an organisation like Clayton Church, to be paying $5/user/month ($60/user/year), with an existing user-base of ~35 email accounts whittled down to ~20, paying $1200/year for email is a steep financial cost to afford. Fortunately, Google has an answer for NFP organisations. This NFP subscription removed the complete financial cost of G Suite and required organisations to be “nonprofit charitable organisations in good standing in their country.” All organisations must be registered with the local TechSoup partner and be validated as a nonprofit organisation. Within Australia, the local TechSoup global network is an organisation called Connecting Up.

Thus, the process began with registering Clayton Church with Connecting Up. Clayton Church, and likely most churches operating in Australia, would be registered with the Australian Charities and NFP Commission (ACNC). ACNC registration is a key reporting requirement established by the government/ATO for organisations to report annually. After completing the online forms, a 14-day trial version of  G Suite was made available. With the TechSoup/Connecting Up validation token issued, the subscription converted over to an NFP subscription in the Admin – Billing section.

Interestingly, there was a few days delay between the final switch to the NFP subscription but the 14-day trial was active. During this transitory period, the limitations of the trial meant that my exploration and familiarisation of G Suite was limited to a maximum of 10 user/accounts.

Migration Experience

With the trial subscription converted to the full NFP edition, a full and detailed understanding was developed as part of preparing to migrate the accounts and configure G Suite. The amount of documentation and detailed settings can be scary and overwhelming, but knowing that other businesses had recently made a smooth transition helped me to build confidence in my on-the-job efforts.

An initial investigation into the possibility of how to minimise any downtime impacts to the existing email service led to the conclusion that this set-up would ultimately be too confusing and technically challenging. The intention of this write-up is not to provide detailed step-by-step instructions for how to perform the actual migration, but key technical concepts that I have come to fully appreciate as a result of this migration/deployment include:

  • DNS:
    • Short for “domain name system”
    • A hierarchical decentralised naming system for computers, services, or other resources connected to the Internet.
  • MX records:
    • Short for “mail exchanger record”
    • A type of resource record in the Domain Name System that specifies a mail server responsible for accepting email messages on behalf of a recipient’s domain
    • Part of configuring an MX record includes the preference value used to prioritise mail delivery where multiple mail server/MX records are configured.
    • G Suite/Gmail has a total of 5 MX records, with priorities distributed.
  • CNAME records:
    • Short for “Canonical Name record”
    • A type of resource record in the DNS used to specify that a domain name is an alias for another domain, which is the “canonical” domain.
    • CNAME records were created to help simplify and utilise the main claytonchurch.org.au brand/domain, specifically for some of the key Google services
  • Email routing
    • The routing and delivery of emails to the various destination servers is arguably the key concept in this migration
    • Initial routing was to the legacy/previous email host, which was Digital Pacific
    • The new G Suite/Gmail service required updates to the MX records to point and adjust the destination to their services.
    • Split routing was considered as a potential approach for ensuring that both the new and old email services could work in parallel; this proved too complex to implement.

Google provide a lot of good resources, for all scales of deployments, varying from small businesses to large enterprises with 100s if not 1000s of users. In the case of Clayton Church, whilst the number of existing accounts was ~30, a few were unused. A number of users were also not using the old email system which also meant no data migration was required.

The migration activities and time-frame followed:

  1. Initial briefing/proposal for email migration. Approval given to initiate work.
  2. Working through the prerequisites for signing up to G Suite:
    1. Charity registration (ACNC)
    2. Connecting Up (TechSoup partner) &
    3. TechSoup/Connecting Up validation token issued
  3. Preparation & Notification:
    1. User creation, during the week commencing Monday 28 February
    2. Notification email to all users, announcing change
  4. Deployment:
    1. Password resets for all accounts, performed on evening of Saturday 4 March
    2. Data migration, Saturday 4 March
    3. Email server update to MX records, Saturday 4 March
    4. Meeting and 1:1 discussions held with all staff, Sunday 5 March
    5. Updating of staff devices – laptop/Outlook settings and phones, Sunday 5 and Monday 6 March
  5. Post Deployment:
    1. Final announcement email to all users, sent Tuesday 7 March
    2. Email aliases added

Post Implementation Review

At the time of first publication the opportunity for a post implementation review (PIR) is a little premature. A period of soaking where users/staff are able to fully make use of the new email service is planned for the week ahead. Already, there is a rough plan to slowly introduce the other features within G Suite to all users. The initial focus has been simply on migrating the core email service and ensure work can continue uninterrupted.

The first use of G Suite beyond the core Gmail service has been the creation of a distribution list/Google Group for all individual staff. This distribution list was utilised in activity 5A above, where all staff were thanked for their patience and cooperation during the migration/deployment activities. One of the next activities and examples of the new G Suite paradigm was and is the use of Google Forms to experiment and explore a potential implementation of an existing Word-based booking form. Sharing and collaborating with staff in this exercise has utilised Google Drive as well as Google Forms, over the underlying Gmail email service.

A formal survey of staff seeking their quick feedback/rating of the migration experience is planned for one week after the migration. Undoubtedly, a summary of the results of that survey may be included here.