The shift toward Software as a Service (SaaS) and Web-based applications has been the focus of the Microsoft vs. Google battle so far. But the rumored Google enterprise appliance, first reported last week, would bring the fight on premise. That's home turf for Microsoft and IBM, and it's where value-added resellers (VARs) and systems integrators (SIs) have had the most services opportunities.
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A Google enterprise appliance makes sense, because large businesses and organizations won't move from on-premise software to SaaS overnight, according to Rob Koplowitz, a principal analyst with Forrester Research.
"Change will come slowly," he said. "We're talking about large, mission-critical systems. Even if it was ready for prime time, which it is not, and even if [a business] was ready today, it would take a while. … This gives Google an opportunity to become more relevant in the short term and in the long term as well."
The success of any Google enterprise appliance will hinge on its features, according to Alexandr Kassabov, vice president of Lotus solutions for PSC Group LLC, a Lotus partner in Schaumburg, Ill. An appliance that offers collaboration software, such as Google Sites, would appeal to more customers than just an email server, he said.
"People who use Lotus Notes don't look at it as an email system," said David Hough, the director of supply chain management at PSC Group. "They look at it as a back-end system that runs a lot of applications and, oh, by the way, it does email."
Lotus Notes is the email and collaboration software that runs on Domino. Regardless of the features in a Google enterprise appliance, it would not rise to the level of competing with Notes or Exchange, Kassabov said.
"Google is a perfect match for smaller businesses," he said. "I've also seen some movement toward Google adoption in nonprofits. Lotus tends to be targeting a larger enterprise space and brings to the table additional levels of security and integration."
Peter O'Kelly, a research director for the Burton Group, agreed.
"It's not analogous to other enterprise appliances," he said. "It would be very expensive for them to get into that business. I don't think Google is going to go there."
Google did not respond to an interview request for this story.
The company has already blazed a trail inside corporate firewalls with the Google Search Appliance, a turnkey hardware-software solution that installs on premise to bring Google indexing and search to internal corporate documents.
Although the shift toward SaaS and Web-based applications will be very gradual -- and despite the prospect of a Google enterprise appliance -- hosted services will still be the eventual battleground where Google, Microsoft, IBM and other vendors compete for enterprise customers.
Younger workers will be more open to adopting SaaS because they're already accustomed to using Web-based email and hosted Web 2.0 services, O'Kelly said. But with more established workers, "you're going to see a lot of resistance," he said. Those employees already have large amounts of data stored on-site and enjoy the more robust features that on-premise software offers.
"The competition will be good for customers but also a little bewildering in the meantime," O'Kelly added.
Google's advantages are its experience in the online market, its understanding of servers with multi-tenant architectures and its large and efficient data centers, Koplowitz said. On the other side, Microsoft and IBM boast "massive installation bases and robust functionality," he said.
Koplowitz recently co-authored a Forrester report, "Get Ready for Collaboration in the Cloud," that lays out the impending market battle as "significant portions" of on-premise software move into hosted services.
"Nobody really has all the pieces to the puzzle," he said. "I see a really interesting battle coming up."