Google may have to change stripes to serve big firms

The first thought that comes to mind when one hears the name Google Inc. isn’t exactly “enterprise IT vendor.”

And yet, the company qualifies as such. True, it’s a recent and small entrant, but Google seems intent on becoming a powerful player in this space.

“It’s not a major focus area for them but yeah, why not? I think they have had limited traction in the corporate enterprise market, but that could be very interesting,” said Citigroup financial analyst Mark Mahaney.

Google has enterprise products for search, Web analytics and mapping, and the company said it is committed to all of them. But how credible a provider is Google today in this market?

“It depends on how you define enterprise. If you say enterprise and include small- and medium-size businesses, then Google does have some pretty credible offerings,” said industry analyst Guy Creese, from Ballardvale Research. “If you’re talking Fortune 1000 companies, I think they’ll have to change their stripes in a lot of ways to serve that market.”

For example, Google’s enterprise products are generally very easy to use and set up, which makes them appealing to companies of all sizes, but they tend to offer few options for customization, a turn-off for large organizations, Creese says.

“Many large companies expect that as a given,” Creese says. “That’s the thing that’s going to keep them from doing a lot of business with really large corporations.” A way to change this is for Google to aggressively open up these products to external developers via application programming interfaces (APIs) so that these partners can customize the products and extend their capabilities, Creese said.

Google seems to be moving in this direction. For example, it already provides some APIs for enterprise search products, such as the Search Appliance and the Google Desktop for Enterprise, as well as for the Google Earth mapping products. In September, Google also unveiled a partner program to sign up independent software vendors (ISVs), resellers, consultants and systems integrators to provide complementary wares and services for its enterprise search products.

The Search Appliance, which starts at US$30,000, is designed to index information stored in a variety of server-based data repositories, such as intranets, public Web sites, relational databases, enterprise business applications, content management software and legacy systems.

A simpler and less expensive version of the Search Appliance, called the Google Mini, costs $2,995 and is designed for use by small and medium-size organizations that want to make searchable the information in their intranets and public Web sites. Both products are hardware boxes with Google software in them, and both use the core technology that powers the company’s search engine. Google Desktop for Enterprise is a free, downloadable software application that indexes and makes searchable the contents of PC hard drives.

Meanwhile, one of Google’s most attention-grabbing products has been its free, downloadable application Google Earth, which it released in mid-2005.

Based on technology and products it acquired when it bought Keyhole Corp. in 2004, Google Earth lets users “fly” around the globe, zipping from destination to destination and zooming in and out of cities, thanks to a multiterabyte database of satellite images taken at some point over the past three years.

Google Earth is for more than doing virtual flyovers. Road maps and the Google Local index of business listings are available for U.S., Canada and the U.K. This means that Google Earth identifies on its maps points of interest, such as airports, train tracks, city borders, churches, hospitals, bars, hotels, banks and parks. It also provides driving directions. For 38 major U.S. cities, Google Earth even provides 3D images of buildings.

While Google Earth can be useful to mainstream consumer users for a variety of tasks, such as planning trips, finding a restaurant or getting acquainted with an area before moving there, there are other members of the Google Earth product family designed for business use.

Google Earth Pro, which costs $400 for an annual license, can import GPS and spreadsheet data, lets users print in a higher resolution than the consumer version and has the ability to measure areas. Its functionality can be extended with optional modules. It is designed for professionals in industries like commercial and residential real estate, architecture, construction, engineering and insurance. There is also a server-based version called Google Earth Enterprise, designed to support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous users.

Google is looking at ways to integrate the Google Earth business products with the enterprise search products. “There’s definitely a lot of potential for integration between the Google Earth products and the Search Appliance and the Google Mini. We’re starting to look at what might make sense,” Dave Girouard, general manager of the Google Enterprise unit, told IDG News Service recently.

Finally, Google plays in the Web analytics market with its Google Analytics hosted service, which monitors Web sites’ usage and tracks the performance of online marketing campaigns.

Google recently shook up this market when it started offering Google Analytics for free. (It used to cost $199 per month.) However, Google got pie in its face when the service experienced serious performance problems due to the avalanche of new subscribers that signed up for it after it became a free service.

Google Analytics had problems for about 48 hours, and a few days later Google temporarily stopped accepting new subscribers, saying it had been overwhelmed by the demand and needed to increase server capacity before it resumed signups.

This is the type of snafu that Google has to avoid if it hopes to convince chief information officers (CIOs) at large companies that it is a credible provider of enterprise IT products, Ballardvale’s Creese said.

“The meltdown of Google Analytics won’t help things,” he said. “It shows Google not quite thinking things through, and that doesn’t fly with CIOs.”

Still, the stumble didn’t bother Jeff Saville too much. The consumer direct marketing manager at Deckers Outdoor Corp. has been using Google Analytics for about two years, starting when it was called Urchin on Demand and developed by Urchin Software Corp., a company Google bought in March of this year.

“Working with the Urchin team has been a very nice experience,” said Saville, whose employer is a Goleta, California, footwear company. “We’re pretty excited about this upgrade and the new features being announced.”

Google also sells a Web analytics software package for in-house installation, called Urchin 5, which has fewer features than Google Analytics and is available in a base module for $895.

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