330k users: Google Apps hits Catholic schools


news Search giant Google has revealed its Google Apps software as a service platform has been deployed to some 330,000 students, teachers and administrative staff at Catholic schools across Australia, in one of the largest local known rollouts of the platform so far.

The rollout took place through the Catholic Education Network (CEnet), a not-for profit IT services organisation which provides IT services to hundreds of Catholic schools in NSW, Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. The origins of the group were within a joint venture between the dioceses of Broken Bay, Wagga Wagga, and Wollongong, which was kicke doff in 2003 and has grown substantially since that time.

In a post on Google Australia’s corporate blog, CEnet manager of IT systems Ian Gregory said the organisation’s member institutions “wanted to move to a next-generation messaging and collaboration platform that went beyond the realms of just plain old email”.

“We have always been aware of the challenges involved in deploying services on a grand scale – IT in education is a big operation that is often underestimated,” he wrote. “Naturally, maintaining systems of this scale requires a significant investment in time, cost and effort. The need to apply regular updates and patches, manage storage, plan for capacity and maintain individual staff and student access was something we dealt with on a day-to-day basis and something we believed was far more complex than it really needed to be.”

“Working with our members, we decided to look for a solution that would establish a centralised resource for communication and collaboration and ultimately reduce the risk and cost of our on-premise services,” Gregory added. “Importantly, any solution needed to be aligned with a virtual learning environment paradigm that would evolve to support the learning initiatives of our members. It also needed to accommodate the expectations of the highly tech savvy generation Y and Z students who expect the same level of technology access in the classroom as they have at home.”

With this in mind, Cenet eventually selected Google Apps as its collaboration platform, with “cost effectiveness, time to deploy and inherent capabilities” being the key drivers behind the decision.

According to CEnet, the initial rollout of Apps to the group’s schools took two weeks, which it said was a record in terms of delivering a platform of this scale — involving 330,000 users. The full suite of Google products was involves — Gmail, Google Drive, Google Sites, Google Groups and Google’s email content filtering system. And the organisation is “already” seeing the unified communications system Google Talk being used for instant messaging.

Gregory said the biggest benefit of Google Apps was the ability for staff and students to share ideas through a “power-to-the-user philosophy”.

“This is very different to the way we have operated in the past,” he said. “Google Drive is now serving as a central resource for file storage, enabling planning and collaboration for both staff and students. This in itself makes group work for students easier, as they can create and edit their work wherever they are and the one central document is updated in real-time.”

“Importantly the functionality of Google Apps’ is also valuable and we can, and have, readily extended the system by utilising the Google Apps Marketplace. We also have the assurance that we’re staying in touch with the most up-to-date technology and meeting the needs and expectations of our students. As Google is constantly innovating, so are we.”

CEnet has been able to lower its management overheads and maintenance costs and effort through the deployment; with the number of servers it has been using for this kind of functionality down from over 30 to just four, and its whole IT ecosystem requiring “far less maintenance”.

“CEnet, like the community it serves, is constantly changing,” wrote Gregory. “We are delighted with the benefits our decision has delivered already and know Google Apps will evolve as we do.”
The news of CEnet’s deployment comes just weeks after media giant Fairfax announced plans to ditch Microsoft’s Office and Exchange platforms for most of its 11,000-odd staff, with the company to become one of the largest known Australian organisations to shift onto Google’s Apps platform for both email and office productivity software.

The news represented the first switch to Google Apps by a major Australian organisation announced this year. Although it announced a swag of sizable new Apps customers throughout 2010 and some in 2011, such as real estate agency Ray White, travel booking service Flight Centre, packaging company Visy and airline Jetstar, Google had not this year revealed any new major wins, with many in the IT industry believing that the momentum in the office productivity sector had swung back to Microsoft, with its ubiquitous Office and Exchange ecosystem.

Many of Australia’s educational institutions have already deployed either Google Apps or Microsoft’s Live@EDU solution, with the nation being split between the two. Like Google, Microsoft has also begun to make inroads into the private sector with its cloud suite — for example, in mid July Qantas reportedly revealed plans for a mass deployment of Microsoft’s Office 365 suite, in a landmark move which will mark one of the first major Australian rollouts of the software as a service platform in a private sector entity.

Google has really started to up the ante recent with its Apps suite. I had begun to suspect Mountain View was getting beaten easily in this area by Redmond in Australia, but it looks like Google has had a few sizable SaaS wins up its sleeve. It will be interesting to see to what degree both are able to make inroads into the private sector with these SaaS deployments. It’s also good to see CEnet acknowledging that this kind of deployment is not just about cutting costs — but actually about empowering users. That’s the kind of understanding I’d like to see from more chief information officers and IT departments when it comes to this kind of technology.

Image credit: Google


  1. My wife still hates google spreadsheets.

    They need to develop it a little more to get it closer to excel to make her happy.

    Otherwise, googles documents system is fantastic. (an “offline” editor would be good though; couldn’t be that hard to write a thick app to do this for those offline times could it?)

    • “They need to develop it a little more to get it closer to excel to make her happy.”

      +1 to this. I hate Google Apps for spreadsheets also.

  2. Would be great to see the NSW DEC, who are already using gmail for student email, roll this out as well, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

      • You are right about exchange for admin, but teachers are using this too. Student mail is based on gmail, but that’s as far as Google apps extend. Even basic Google Docs is blocked for students.

        • Really? They block Google Docs etc? That seems stupid. And it also doesn’t make much sense for the staff not to be on Gmail if everyone else is. Most universities have gone for a standard staff/student solution.

  3. Good stuff … I hope this works out well for them … which I’m sure it will. The interesting thing with these stories is that the move to a large scale cloud service like this feels risky because you seem to have no power to influence a massive global player like Google … until you realise that the “wrath of the crowd” gives greater practical collective leverage than any contract or SLA ever did. If things go wrong it is transparently visible and fixed very quickly (often before the customer is even aware there is, or was, a problem) … otherwise the wrath of the crowd is awoken and the incident is hot news in the twiterati and tech press. This creates much sharper performance incentives than either apply to most in-house IT departments or can be created using a contract and an SLA in a traditional managed services arrangement.

    • Very true, Steve. I have been covering this cloud email space for some time (and I use Google Apps myself), and I have very very rarely seen any problems with it. As you say, there is a huge amount of wrath which would come down on Google’s (or Microsoft’s) head if they were ever to experience a major outage.

      • I would wager Google would have already suffered what would be catagorised as a “major outage” for most people, but they will have geographically separate data farms for their storage so unless something totally catastrophic happens no will ever notice.

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