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Can you really put your desktop in the cloud?

Choosing to use a cloud-based knowledge worker productivity suite is more than just a cost-based decision. While browser-based applications work for many users, a cloud-based desktop could cause a painful transition if your needs are beyond average.

The concept of moving server applications to the cloud is not difficult to picture—after all, all other things being equal, where an application resides is rarely an issue that impacts function. Many operations need not change at all; rather, just the addressing of the services changes. Much more ambitious is the idea of putting end-user applications in the cloud.

And yet, it does seem to be happening. In Microsoft's fiscal year 2017, revenue for cloud-based Office 365 was up substantially and exceeded the company's revenue for traditional desktop licenses (the revenue for which was down substantially). At the time of its annual report, in July 2017, Microsoft said more than 100 million people use Office 365 commercial (business, not consumer versions).

The main competition for Office 365 in the enterprise space is Google's G Suite, formerly Google Apps. Some large enterprises have moved large numbers of users to G Suite, including Colgate-Palmolive and Verizon, and Google claims that more than 3 million businesses pay for G Suite.

The key to this new model is that there is no program logic installed on the endpoint. The program is served from the provider’s cloud, as web pages and all interaction is done in the web browser. Well, almost all. It's worth pointing out that the enterprise SKUs of Office 365 include a license for the desktop editions of Office, currently Office 2016. These conventional, native Windows programs can access data in Office 365 directly. But with G Suite, desktop users can work only in the browser and probably just in Google Chrome.

Taking the desktop out of users' hands

How well can this work? Can IT assume that hard-core desktop super-users will be happy with browser-based productivity applications? Let's go a step further: Will those users be happy with running those apps on a Chromebook that can run only a web browser? (Like Chrome OS on a Chromebook, Microsoft Windows S is an edition limited in capability, but it can also run Windows 10-native programs. So far, Microsoft markets this edition of Windows only for the education market, where Chromebooks find most of their users.)

The short answer is no. Sophisticated users will cry out in frustration at the restrictions in web-based productivity apps. But clearly, a large subset of users would get along just fine with the limited capability and performance of these cloud-based platforms. More concerning, however, is that there is a large group in the middle that can some of the time but certainly will run into problems.

Mobile platforms are not unlike Chromebooks and Windows S in their limitations compared with full-blown desktop platforms. Both Microsoft and Google put a lot of work into native apps for iOS and Android for accessing their clouds.

I have personal experience with both suites. I was a contractor at a large corporation that migrated to G Suite from Office and its own Exchange servers while I was there. I have worked on several Office 365 domains, and my personal domain, which I administer, is on a business Office 365 account.

IT decision makers share insights on the technologies, challenges, and benefits gained from their hybrid IT models.

Comparing cloud applications' features

Both G Suite and Office 365 have a long list of applications, but a few are used more than others.

Email: Email in G Suite is Gmail. In Office 365, it is Outlook, both the browser version and the native Windows program. Gmail in G Suite is indistinguishable from consumer Gmail. While many love Gmail, it’s a much simpler and therefore less powerful user interface. In my experience, the browser version of Outlook is adequate for my needs almost all the time, but clearly there are many desktop features that it lacks. I didn’t realize how much users actually liked Outlook until my client took it away from them and moved staff to Gmail. The biggest gap in functionality that people noticed was that Gmail does not allow users to sort email by columns, such as date or sender; Google wants you to search. Users were unhappy, but with rare exceptions, they learned how to do what they needed to do to get their jobs done.

Calendar: Google has made great strides with its Calendar in recent years. When the original Google Apps for Enterprise was released, the Calendar function was unacceptably weak. But now, just about all the major pieces are there.

Storage: Storage is an important consideration when moving desktops to the cloud. Users are used to accessing files in their local file systems and network shares, but the browser versions of the programs can’t access these. Office 365’s preferred location is OneDrive for Business and G Suite’s is Google Drive. Every Office 365 user gets 1 terabyte of storage, which, to use an old phrase, ought to be enough for anybody. Google says that Google Drive storage is unlimited. Once again, using the native applications (locally installed) with Office 365 allows you to access all the usual file locations along with OneDrive for Business (and Dropbox Google Drive).

Word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations: I’m lumping these three applications together because the story is essentially the same for all. Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides can adequately do most of what Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint do. The Google applications can read and write Microsoft file formats. Many power-user features from Microsoft products are lacking in G Suite, but the gap isn’t what it used to be. Sheets, for instance, now has Pivot Tables; their absence in earlier versions was a deal-breaker for many. But Excel hasn’t stood still, with higher level tools such as Quick Analysis, which offers many different ways to analyze data. It’s also worth considering that all printing in the browser apps of both products generates a PDF. If you want to actually put the document on paper, you use either the browser’s PDF viewer, Adobe Acrobat, or a similar program. In either case, a certain amount of fine control is lost over print layout.

Other applications: Both products have numerous other programs for a variety of functions. Microsoft has cloud and desktop versions of its OneNote program. G Suite has a simpler note taker called Keep. Each has a variety of communication/collaboration programs, from Microsoft’s Skype for Business and Google’s Hangouts to Microsoft’s Slack-like Teams product and Google’s shared whiteboard program Jamboard. In terms of server-side development, Office 365 comes with SharePoint, which is unpleasant out of the box but can be used to build sophisticated applications. Google’s Sites is the closest thing to that, and while it is simple, it is very limited in comparison to SharePoint. Some of these applications and tools might be particularly appropriate for your needs, and hey, if you buy the suite, you’re already paying for them.

Questions to ask yourself as you evaluate the options

Security: When you adopt one of these solutions, they run on computers in Microsoft’s and Google’s data centers under their management. You may be storing files on their servers. Should you be concerned about this?

Ask yourself: Are your people really as well-funded and equipped to protect your assets as are Google and Microsoft? Few can answer that question in the affirmative. All the data is strongly encrypted both in transit and at rest. The cloud applications are, by their nature, always the most current version. (This is increasingly true even of the Office desktop programs, as Microsoft is increasingly pushing its Click-to-Run technology, which keeps desktop programs up to date automatically. Office 2019, which is scheduled to ship in the second half of 2018, will be available only as Click-to-Run, not with MSI installers.)

Large enterprises often use third-party add-ins for Microsoft Office, such as applications for digital document signing, CRM, and videoconferencing. Both Microsoft and Google have developer programs with many participants, but many important programs are on just one and not the other, or if they are on both, the two don’t always have all the same features.

Collaboration: Much is made by Google and many out-of-date reviews about the collaboration features in G Suite. From the beginning, multiple users have been able to work on the same document simultaneously, seeing each other’s changes in near real time. This has always been more cool than useful, but the fact is that Microsoft Office has done it as well for several years now. It’s not a reason to prefer G Suite over Office 365.

Cost: Cost is obviously always a factor in such decisions, but it is also tough to nail down in a general analysis. Even so, cost, more than any technological benefits, probably drives most migration to these cloud application platforms, especially when the cost calculation means an organization doesn't have to administer its own servers and applications anymore, or at least not to the same extent otherwise. In this sense, the cost savings are not easy to estimate but potentially huge. 

Google lists only three prices for G Suite: Basic for $5 per user per month; Business for $10 per user per month; and Enterprise for $25 per user per month. Microsoft’s list of editions is much longer and more complex. There are four Enterprise SKUs, ranging from the $8 per user per month E1 SKU which, like G Suite, has only online user applications, to the $35 per user per month E5 SKU, which includes desktop versions of Office programs and a large collection of cloud services. These are the advertised prices. Will the companies haggle, at least with potential large customers? I’m not authorized to say, but the perception that G Suite is cheaper than Microsoft Office is not necessarily so.

What makes users happy?

Even with all the software limitations, the large majority of users can do all their work just fine in either product's browser versions. If the presentations are not as fancy as before, most of us can learn to live with it.

There actually is a middle ground—or the possibility of one—for those who miss the power of their desktop applications: Keep your Microsoft Office programs. G Suite reads and writes Office file formats. You can’t assume all features translate cleanly between products, but there’s a good chance they will.

Cloud-based office applications are not something you can avoid for long. Microsoft’s direction is clearly toward directing everyone to Office 365. The only practical alternative might be G Suite, not continuing to run your software the same old way.

The cost comparison raises another basic point about moving your desktops to the cloud that some people miss: Especially if you’re a large installation, once you get past the migration costs, either G Suite or Office 365 is cheaper and easier to operate. The comparison to existing on-premises costs is not the key one. It’s the comparison of one cloud to the other. 

Could you actually give your users Chromebook or some other such device, perhaps even a PC locked down to load only a browser? For a lot of users, this would be adequate, especially those who use basically one application. For most users, this environment is probably a straightjacket that causes more problems than it solves. If you absolutely must have a set of users with full desktop-suite capabilities, the fact that it is included with Office 365 could be the deciding factor between the suite options.

Someday, at least five years from now, browsers may become powerful enough that any program you want to run can run adequately in them and not require local, native code. In the meantime, any organization of sufficient size will have many users who are not well-served by the browser-based versions.

Putting your desktop in the cloud: Lessons for leaders

  • It is likely that some subset of your users need more capabilities than are currently available in browser-based sites. Contemplate how best to serve them.
  • Operational costs are lower for these products when compared with local installations for all users.
  • As these technologies change, they need to be reevaluated for suitability to task.

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This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.