- Jean-Martin Thibault IT/Software Enterprise Architect
- Samir Youssef Director of IT Project Delivery and Risk Management
CBC/Radio-Canada recently chose Google as its email service provider. Migration to the Google Apps platform, which includes Gmail, will be carried out in the first quarter of 2013. This new Cloud-based platform will provide CBC/Radio-Canada users with a suite of integrated collaborative tools.
This solution was chosen through a rigorous selection process that started with a call for tenders. The decision was based on the needs and characteristics of the Corporation, and a set of very precise selection criteria.
A Brief History of Email
Email, in one form or another, has been around almost as long as computer networks and long predates the arrival of the Internet.
In 1961, researchers at MIT invented one of the first multi-user systems, called CTSS. By 1965, CTSS had hundreds of users and a messaging system was created to allow them to communicate with one another. When the researchers floated the idea of “electronic letters”, the heads at MIT were somewhat reluctant, since they felt it would result in a waste of what were then expensive resources.
It was in the early 1980s that one of the first communications protocols for modern email was introduced: the SMTP (Simple Message Transfer Protocol). Finalised as a standard in 1982 in RFC 821 of the IETF, this protocol is still in use today, 30 years after its creation.
Today, messaging systems not only include email, but also a variety of indispensable functions, such as contacts, mailing lists, and a calendar, which allows users to plan activities and meetings, and has become an integral part of the corporate toolbox. Together, these tools form a limited, but essential collaborative platform.
Consumerisation of Information Technologies
In their first decades of existence, messaging systems were only available in the workplace, since they were expensive and complicated to implement. During the 1990s, thanks in part to the arrival of the Internet, these technologies were democratised, becoming accessible to all.
Technological advances in the past two decades, notably in Cloud computing, have been influenced by the consumer market, not the business sector. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “consumerisation” (for more information, see the Emerging Technology and IT's role as an Enabler article in SYNC).
Benefits of Cloud Computing
“Cloud computing” is a general concept that has become a hot discussion topic in technological circles. For more information, check out the Cloud Services article in SYNC.
The evolution of technology and currently available solutions is forcing companies to decide how to optimise their resources in order to fulfil their mission. These decisions are often made by Information Technologies (IT) departments. It would not be economically feasible to assign specialised resources to all of a company's technological areas. This is certainly the case at CBC/Radio-Canada, where the necessary expertise must be focused on strategic initiatives aimed at providing a quality product to Canadians.
Messaging is a widely used service that several providers now offer via Cloud computing. Google and others have built up an impressive capability in running this type of service, given the huge number of mailboxes they manage. They have dedicated enormous resources to this product, which is at the core of their business plan.
An Infrastructure to Support the Entire Planet
A Giant, Global Infrastructure
CBC/Radio-Canada owns a number of data centres across Canada and a massive infrastructure to support office automation services for approximately 10,000 employees, as well as radio, television, and webcasting services. This infrastructure is impressive, even for a company of this size [see, for example, the SYNC article describing our Next Generation Converged Network (NGCN)].
However, all of this hardware is nothing compared to that of companies like Google, which, until recently, had kept its technological environment a closely guarded secret. In 2012, however, the company decided to give the public an inside look at its operations.
Figure 1 – Google Datacenters
Part of CBC/Radio-Canada's mission is to conserve our Canadian heritage. To do so, we need to constantly invest in and increase our resources. Given the significant costs involved, we are better off focusing our energies on media rather than messaging. Examples of such costs include storage space, remote backups (for disaster recovery), electricity to keep everything running, and equipment upgrades every three to seven years.
Cloud computing companies have the same challenges, but, to minimise their operating costs and reduce security risks that would affect all of their customers, they have developed data centres using innovative techniques that are not readily available to the majority of companies. While very costly on a small scale, these techniques become highly profitable on an extremely wide scale. For example:
- Google develops many custom products for its data centres (computers, routers, electric relays, etc.). This allows the company to optimise space, and control energy efficiency and other similar parameters.
- Google frequently uses water instead of air to regulate the temperature in its data centres. It is more expensive to install pipes rather than air ducts, but the energy savings make this a cost-effective compromise.
- These choices make Google's huge data centres more environmentally friendly than smaller centres, considering the amount of data they process.
By using the services of a Cloud computing company, CBC/Radio-Canada will be able to take advantage of all of these technological advances, as well as an economy of scale that would otherwise be out of reach.
A lot of planning and effort go into the maintenance and upgrading of a heavily used application like email. Interrupting the messaging service at a communications company like CBC/Radio-Canada is more than just an inconvenience. With complex planning, costly infrastructure, and an army of engineers, it is possible to ensure that there will never be service interruptions during equipment or software upgrades. However, even for an organisation like CBC/Radio-Canada, this is sometimes an unrealistic scenario.
Cloud service providers are faced with exactly the same challenges in these kinds of situations and have similar solutions at their disposal. Because of the size of their operations, however, they are able to achieve economies of scale. It is also inconceivable for them to interrupt services to all of their customers.
For example, a breakdown or service interruption at Google causes problems to several hundred million users. The company therefore has to take all the necessary precautions to ensure that this situation never occurs.
From the customer's perspective, software and server upgrades are a non-event. All who use the Cloud messaging service regularly benefit from security fixes, anti-virus upgrades, improved performance, and technological advances in a totally seamless manner.
This is one of the major benefits of making the switch to Cloud-based messaging.
Scalability & Security
The scalability of a computer system refers to its capacity to expand and handle an increased workload (e.g., a higher number of users), or the ease with which resources can be added without service interruptions.
This capacity can be assessed by comparing the system's performance before and after the workload increase. For example, scalability can be evaluated according to the following two criteria: the capacity to add 1% of additional users on a permanent basis, or the capacity to double (i.e., to increase by 100%) the number of additional users for a short period. Scalability can also be measured according to the downtime required to add resources. A system is very scalable if there is no downtime and the performance remains unchanged after the workload increase.
Cloud service providers must offer highly scalable systems, because of the number of users they support and the fact that workload increases can occur at any time. The public's interest in a given service is often difficult to predict and providers must be able to adjust to a rapid spike in demand.
Over the years, these companies have developed scalable and expandable infrastructures. In the first six months of 2012, for instance, the number of active Gmail users rose from 350 million to 425 million.
Figure 2 – Number of Active Gmail Users
From this perspective, adding a few thousand CBC/Radio-Canada users will be a very simple operation for Google's infrastructure.
The same goes for disaster recovery and business continuity plans, which set out the procedures and policies to follow in order to resume or, ideally, continue regular activities.
Google owns data centres across the globe and has a single recovery plan for all of its customers.
In fact, most Cloud service providers guarantee the availability of their systems and have integrated continuity processes to ensure that data remain available, even if one of their data centres is affected by network or hardware failures.
A regular software installation in one of our data centres requires cost planning for the entire project. There are initial equipment costs such as wiring and computers, software licence costs (normally for the first year), installation costs, and so on. Then there are recurring costs: electricity, labour, licence renewals, and equipment replacements every few years.
The Cloud computing model is a service rental model, as opposed to an upfront purchase model. The initial costs are practically nil and recurring costs depend on resources used. In the case of email, we will pay according to the number of mailboxes we use.
An analogy may be drawn with transportation: according to the traditional model, you purchase a car (a high initial outlay), pay for gas, follow the manufacturer's maintenance plan, and put money aside to buy your next car. Cloud computing in this analogy would be the equivalent of public transit – in a luxury bus where passengers have their own private “roomettes.” Users share the operating costs, but only according to the distance they travel.
More than just Email
Over time, most Cloud service providers have added several other functions to their basic email service. A wide range of advanced collaboration and communication tools now complement the traditional email and calendar.
These collaboration and communication tools are not new to the business sector. However, they were very complex to implement, configure, and manage (and still are, to a degree), and the cost was prohibitive for most companies. When available, such tools tended to be used by only a subset of employees.
Like many other Cloud-based applications, these types of tools have become more accessible in recent years. They were initially only rolled out to residential users and were only later made available to companies. Google, for example, launched Gmail in 2004. Google Apps, the corporate version of the same product that will be used by CBC/Radio-Canada, was launched in 2007. Going back even further, one of the most popular public email sites, Hotmail, has been around since 1996! (Microsoft bought Hotmail in 1997.)
Revamped Office Automation Tools
Standard office automation tools such as word processing software, electronic spreadsheets, presentation software, and vector graphics editors are basically as old as email.
Today's most popular suite by far is Microsoft Office. Word and Excel are the most frequently used applications and are considered the norm in the business world. Over the years, Microsoft has added multiple functionalities to cater to all users: writers, graphic designers, publicists, secretaries, professional presenters, marketing specialists, lawyers, etc. In short, a wide range of people with varied and sometimes very specific needs. For most users, however, these additional functionalities are superfluous.
Over the years, several Cloud service providers have significantly enhanced the tools that come with email and the calendar. Rather than trying to compete with Microsoft in terms of editing functionalities, these providers have focused on the benefits of Cloud computing (i.e., the network availability of the platform), and have added collaborative functionalities.
In the case of Google, the Google Apps suite includes the following office automation tools: Docs (word processing), Sheets (an electronic spreadsheet), Slides (a presentation software), and Drawings (a vector graphics editor). The functionalities of these apps do not compare with their equivalents in Microsoft Office. However, Google has capitalised on its network computing expertise and its vast computer network to offer advanced collaborative functionalities.
Each of these apps allows several users to work on the same document at the same time, in real time. In addition, Google has done away with the idea of “saving a copy of the file”. Document changes made by each participant are continually saved on Google's servers and are also copied to other data centres across the globe to ensure even greater security. Furthermore, all changes are saved in the Cloud and users can access each participant's revision history.
Figure 3 – A Text Document in Google Apps
It is worth noting that these functionalities are available on several platforms, notably mobile platforms like smartphones and tablet devices.
This allows for increased collaboration and helps to avoid errors and time-consuming file transfers by email. Users no longer have to save several copies of the same file, make regular backups, or complete the often complex task of comparing and merging colleagues' copies of the same file.
As we will see in the next section, users can carry out these activities whilst talking to one another with new integrated communications tools such as videoconferencing and instant messaging.
In addition to the collaborative tools described in the previous section, Google (like many other companies) offers advanced online communication tools. These tools may be used for either asynchronous or real-time communication.
Asynchronous communication tools are like specialised websites where users gather to exchange ideas and collaborate on projects. They communicate through shared messages that are available to everyone.
With asynchronous communication, users generally expect messages to be saved for a certain time. This allows people to collaborate over a long period, which is not always the case with real-time communication.
Discussion groups allow users to rapidly create work groups or Q&A lists. In these groups, people can post comments, ask questions, or answer other people's questions, and even vote for the most interesting message. This is the oldest type of collaborative site, dating back to the early days of the Internet (one of the oldest discussion systems still widely used today is Usenet). Google's Groups function allows users to join and participate in Usenet groups, and also to create private discussion groups at CBC/Radio-Canada.
Figure 4 – Google's Groups Function
For example, a technical support team can create a private discussion group in which users can post questions about minor issues instead of sending an email. The advantage of discussion groups, in this context, is that the issues and corresponding solutions are documented and available for all to see.
Collaboration sites are small, specialised websites that can be rapidly created by anyone without specific Web programming knowledge. With Google Sites, users can set up a website to brainstorm as a team, collaborate on a project, post static documents, or create a Wiki (the most popular Wiki is clearly the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia).
Unlike discussion groups, collaboration sites allow for much more diversified content. Google Sites allows users to add a discussion group within the same site. A section can also be added to share documents, post videos, or insert a shared calendar. Users can even elicit input from all Internet users by making the site publicly available.
Private social networks are like public social networks, but are generally dedicated to companies. The best-known public social networks are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+.
The main difference between social networks and other types of communication sites is the idea of a network of people. This network allows users to contact individuals who are directly or indirectly related to another individual.
As the above diagram shows, social networks allow all the members of projects 1 and 2 to be connected through individuals who belong to both projects. The connections even extend beyond projects 1 and 2.
A network is a very efficient way to send information to a large number of individuals, which is why public social networking sites rapidly became so popular.
Social networks have been emerging in the corporate sector in recent years for the same reason. The speed with which people can discuss ideas as a group, organise activities, and reach a consensus on important issues results in significant productivity gains. Networks help to overcome the “silo effect” that too often exists among projects and departments in major corporations. Employees feel more connected and engaged.
The problem with public social networks is precisely the fact that they are public. A company's confidential information can be rapidly disseminated via a network over which it has no control. Private or corporate social networks offer the same functions as public ones, but allow users to classify information and ensure that it does not leave the company's virtual walls.
In 2011, Google+ was launched as a public network. In the summer of 2012, Google began adding security functions for the business sector. As a result, Google+ can now be configured to ensure that information will never be sent to an individual who is not a company employee.
Private social networks are another good example of products that were rolled out to the general public before being adapted to the needs of the business sector.
With real-time communication tools, collaborators can exchange in real time or near real time.
Instant messaging is a form of real-time communication that allows users to send short text messages. Instant messaging is generally used to communicate with one or a limited number of recipients.
Figure 6 – Google Talk
An interesting function in instant messaging that is not available in email is a person's presence status. Instant messaging software has a visual indicator allowing users to see whether the recipient is present and therefore available to rapidly respond to a request. In the Google Apps suite, Google Talk is used for instant messaging.
Videoconferencing allows two or more users to talk and see each other via a webcam and usually includes instant messaging as well. Google's latest video chat product is Hangouts (which comes with Google+, the social networking platform described in the previous section). The corporate version of Hangouts comes with several advanced functions:
- Fifteen people can participate in a conversation at the same time.
- With Hangouts on Air, users can broadcast their hangout online and save it to their YouTube account.
- Screen sharing allows participants to see content on a user's screen without having to download anything.
- Users can work in real time on a Google Apps document (see the previous section).
- Hangout sessions can be added to any calendar event, creating a virtual team room.
- Users can choose from several other available apps and can develop their own collaborative apps using the Google+ Hangouts API.
IP telephony allows users to make and receive phone calls from their computer via the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), i.e., the regular fixed and mobile phone network. Users can make phone calls directly from a device supporting Google Talk. For example, they can place a call directly from the Gmail Web interface.
Available Anytime, Anywhere
By definition, Cloud-based applications can be accessed from anywhere, which is why they became instantly popular with residential users. An Internet connection and browser are all you need to access data, wherever you are on the planet.
Once again, companies are lagging behind residential users. The procedures for logging in to a company's central servers are often more complex. For example, a common practice is to use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). This is a very secure way to access the company's applications and confidential data. However, VPNs often require the installation of software in order to connect computers to the company's network. This is not always practical, which is why applications that can be safely accessed online are becoming the preferred choice.
Google Apps offers users a hassle-free, Web-based collaborative solution.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of smartphones and tablets on the market. Most (if not all) of these devices have good Internet browsers and an almost-permanent Internet connection. For Cloud-based service providers, mobility was the next logical step.
Companies offering Cloud-based tools now provide mobile device users with seamless access to their services. If you want to take part in a videoconference while your child is at hockey practice, all you have to do is join the conference using your mobile phone. If a colleague sends you an instant text message asking for your help with a presentation while you are waiting for a flight, you can make the changes directly on your tablet.
Cloud computing allows users to stay connected and actively participate in work-related activities, wherever they are.
CBC/Radio-Canada is making the switch to Cloud computing by replacing its internal messaging system with the Google Apps collaborative platform.
We could have opted for other collaborative solutions, but Cloud computing seemed the user-friendliest choice. In the coming years, the business world will be following the lead of consumers in online services.
With this new service in place, CBC/Radio-Canada hopes to become even more productive and to continue providing Canadians with quality programming on television, radio, and the Web.