How Microsoft totally blew it and lost this contract to Google Apps

Credit: mrmanc via Flickr

Reed.co.uk -- the largest online job site in the United Kingdom -- occupies a rare position in the market. As the web face of Reed, a 53-year-old employment agency with three thousand employees and 180 offices across the country, it has a little extra exposure and a lot of extra cachet. But as a 250-seat startup within the larger Reed corporate mechanism, Reed.co.uk can focus on agility and innovation. 

It's that call for agility which first led Reed.co.uk to revamp its approach to IT and go to the cloud, says Director of Technology Mark Ridley -- and which ultimately led it to Google Apps over Microsoft Office 365. In an unusual turn, Google's Chrome devices could also displace Citrix-powered VDI solutions. 

First, some context. In the UK, recruitment agencies hire for a much broader range of positions than you might see in the United States, and so more people find their way to employment with their help. To that end, Reed.co.uk was founded in 1995 to share Reed's job posting information with the masses. 

After the dotcom bubble burst in early 2000, Ridley and the executive team decided to expand Reed.co.uk past just Reed's own listings and enable anybody to post them. It became a a business in its own right, distinct from the mothership.

From 2000 to 2007, the total number of job postings ballooned from 20,000 to 350,000. In 2007, Reed.co.uk doubled down on its monetization model and started to recruit, going from a 25 people then to 250 today.

During that journey from startup to SMB, Reed.co.uk relied primarily on Lotus Notes for e-mail. The company also dabbled in the cloud here and there, deploying Salesforce.com in 2007 for a five-man sales team.

But come January 2012, the company decided that if Reed.co.uk was going to continue delivering a cutting-edge job-seeking service, they needed a new IT infrastructure that was just as modern. IT service delivery was never a particular strength within the company, and Ridley strongly believed that legacy applications were fundamentally lagging in quality behind their sleek, browser-based cloud counterparts. 

"Legacy applications just aren't from the same era of development," Ridley says.

Long story short: Lotus Notes was out, and the cloud was in. 

Over the next several months, Ridley says that Reed.co.uk engaged in four Microsoft Office 365 trials, putting the cloud collaboration suite through its paces and finding it a suitable hosted infrastructure. And the licensing tier that Ridley was leaning towards would include a desktop copy of Microsoft Office for everybody in the company.

But three things kept Ridley from closing the deal:

  • At no point did a Microsoft sales representative follow up with Reed.co.uk to see about closing the deal, causing Ridley to speculate that Redmond thought his 250 seats weren't worth their time.
  • The difficulty of integrating Office 365 with Active Directory (AD) - the very last vestige of the Microsoft stack that the company relied on for internal IT - seemed counterintuitive. As of Reed.co.uk's last trial of Office 365 in September 2012, the platform had missing documentation for AD integration, with Ridley running into 404 errors. And the AD sync tool itself was cumbersome to deploy, with an elaborate install process, he says. 
  • Most damagingly, they found a clause buried in Office 365's fine print that would prevent them from deploying the desktop version of Microsoft Office in a virtual desktop environment. 

At Reed.co.uk, many lower-level workers were on thin clients powered by Citrix on Dell Wyse hardware, and the ability to deploy Microsoft Office 365 across both the cloud and these virtual desktops would have been clutch. The licensing restriction turned out to be a deal-breaker.

Meanwhile, Ridley and others within Reed.co.uk's IT had been experimenting with Google Apps in a very informal private beta for the better part of two years. With Microsoft Office 365 disqualified, they decided to give Google Apps a fighting chance. 

For all of the shortcomings Ridley found with Office 365, Google Apps was there to fill the gap, he says. Reed.co.uk was engaged with Google Apps reseller Grove Group for deployment in late October 2012. Google Apps' Active Directory integration was far ahead of Microsoft's. Google's well-known proclivity for rapidly improving Apps made the suite better seemingly every day. Google Apps also enabled a better mobility experience than Lotus Notes ever could, which was a major auxilliary benefit.

Training was a simple matter of gathering employees into a room and asking who uses Gmail in their personal lives. Anybody who raised their hand was excused from training immediately. That took care of half the company. For the other fifty percent, training was simple, and troubleshooting often required little more than a few words of guidance from a coworker.

And for those few things that Google Apps couldn't do out of the box, like setting e-mail signatures for different user groups, Ridley used the popular BetterCloud FlashPanel management dashboard. 

As for desktop-as-a-service, Reed.co.uk is currently testing Chromebooks and Chromeboxes instead of thin clients: The job site's telephone sales team relies primarily on Gmail, Salesforce.com, and another browser-based tool for phone dialing in and out, so Google's cheap, cloud-powered desktop and netbook black boxes were a compelling alternative. Management costs are much lower, and it's a lot easier and quicker to provision a new Google Chromebox than it is to image a new PC, Ridley says. At the tail end of an eight-week trial period, the main feedback from the 150+ testers of Chromebox and Chromebook has been "don't take this away," Ridley says. 

There's a downside to this approach to thin computing (there always is): If the Google Apps experiment doesn't pan out for Reed.co.uk down the line, the Chromeboxes and Chromebooks are just so much junk, whereas a commodity PC could be reused and reimaged.

Going to Google Apps may not entirely get rid of Reed.co.uk's dependence on Microsoft, since -- as ever -- individual users and the accounting department will need Microsoft Office. But now, the IT department can buy Office on an employee-by-employee basis, rather than using the blanket licensing model that Office 365 would have offered.

"The question isn't 'Is Office 365 good?'" says Ridley. "It's 'Is it necessary?'"

The bottom line for Reed.co.uk, according to Ridley, is that Google Apps has enabled IT staff to focus less on keeping the lights on, figuratively speaking, and more on outreach and developing relationships with the users they support. It's all in the name of ensuring that the services they deliver internally are as good as the ones the company delivers to the outside world. 

UPDATE: This story originally misstated Reed.co.uk's experience with Office 365 and Active Directory integration. In a clarification, Mark Ridley told us that the documentation for integrating with AD was insufficient and often broken, and that the process was cumbersome.

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