Nestled in the peaceful Riverina district of southern NSW, De Bortoli Wines' headquarters is 570 kilometres from Sydney's bustling central business district.
But as the first sizeable Australian company to use Google Apps in an enterprise setting, the relevance of De Bortoli's trial stretches far beyond the grapevines to other organisations cautiously sniffing the technology.
Travelling less traditional technology routes is nothing new for the privately owned winemaker. Its chief information officer of 10 years, Bill Robertson, has long been committed to open-source computing and trialled the Linux operating system well in advance of his contemporaries in 1999.
These days, De Bortoli runs Linux on about half its desktops. The business has standardised on the Open Office software suite for its 550 employees and implemented open-source systems for project management, intranet content management and risk assessment.
In mid-2007, 10 sales and support staff at De Bortoli's Brisbane office kicked off a Google Apps pilot. The company was specifically seeking to exploit Google Apps's online collaboration features and allow access to applications for on-the-road sales representatives at minimal cost and effort to Robertson and his IT staff.
"Open Office is free but it still requires help with installation, ensuring hardware is up to specification and ongoing support," says Robertson.
"We avoid most of that with Google Apps and our sales reps can access spreadsheets, word processing, calendaring and email without us needing to provide or maintain end-user software."
Fast forward three months to September 2007 and De Bortoli's entire quality-control department was using Google Apps's free standard edition, primarily to collaborate internally and with staff at offshore packaging plants.
"Emailing spreadsheets back and forth is a poor way to transfer data and building applications to manage this requires a lot of infrastructure," says Robertson. "Google Apps is a good way for staff to work simultaneously."
The pilot at De Bortoli has since been extended to a trial incorporating 130 users from core business units. Google Apps utilises one of De Bortoli's domains, that is, users have a company email address and the IT team can centrally manage accounts via administrative controls. If problems arise with staff, or they leave the company, accounts can be decommissioned or otherwise managed.
Robertson is pleased with Google Apps's collaboration features and says version control issues are addressed by its single source of truth capabilities and wiki-style revision history. He is also impressed with its integrated calendaring capabilities and says it's handy to merge his private Gmail calendar with work commitments.
"If my work and private life conflict, I get flagged because my daughter and wife use Google calendars too."
But there's a flipside, Robertson says. Google's shallow background in servicing the enterprise market is highlighted by insufficient back-up functionality. While most companies back up crucial data offsite, De Bortoli's logic is to back up onsite since data is already hosted offsite with Google Apps.
De Bortoli developed and gifted Google with a utility to automate this back-up process. All was rosy until the utility stopped working.
"Google changed the way its authentication scheme worked and it broke," says Robertson. "It really highlighted the risks involved in using online applications where you can't necessarily control the final outcomes."
Until Google addresses the back-up issue, De Bortoli will not extend the trial. And, while someone as opposed to proprietary software as Robertson could be dismissed as overly critical, his disappointment with the back-up utility makes him wary of putting all his eggs in the Google basket.
"Google is good with providing APIs to access data but we remain dependent on their proprietary software," he says.
These discomforts aside, Robertson says the trial fulfilled his expectations and believes Google Apps could "absolutely" scale up to a larger enterprise. But for companies looking to entirely replace Microsoft or Open Office, Google Apps's more limited feature set might still disappoint, he warns.
In early 2007 Google Apps released a Premier Edition costed at $50 a year per user with greatly increased storage for individual users. Robertson perceived this additional storage as a back-up risk and baulked at the idea of upgrading.
"I don't want to make the problem worse by purchasing more space," he explains. "We have hit the limits of where we can go for now, but Google is a smart company and I think they will catch on."
Robertson says he's learnt a lot by trialling new technologies: "You think you can imagine the future benefits of technology but it's only when you arrive that you realise the sum of the limitations."
- Australian Financial Review
Beware 'unbalanced' Enterprise 2.0
While bosses ponder how social networks can help their employees collaborate, De Bortoli's chief information officer, Bill Robertson, sticks to social contracts instead.
Social networking is one plank in a raft of tools known as Enterprise 2.0. If prevailing wisdom exists with such an emergent concept, it suggests companies that deploy Enterprise 2.0 tools should relax their grip and allow participation and structure to emerge spontaneously.
"There's an assumption that if you build it, they will come," he says. "In theory this is true, but our experience suggests it will be unbalanced. Some bright sparks will always be keen but it depends on their skills and background."
His definition of Enterprise 2.0 is based less around specific technologies and more around how they are used. He says De Bortoli has years of practical experience using technology in a collaborative environment and points to its open-source intranet content management system as an example.
For three years, De Bortoli staff have been able to create, link and edit intranet content.
"It's been a staggering success in places but has also shown us the limitations of the model," says Robertson. "Some departments really fleshed it out and others accept it's a good idea but don't have the resources or need to contribute."
To some extent, Robertson gets around the issue by providing training, much of which is placed on the intranet for self-training.
"I have a social contract to treat all staff equitably," he says.
Robertson also bucks the trend that assumes a good dose of Enterprise 2.0 salts is necessary to dissolve organisational hierarchies.
"For companies that don't obsessively adhere to organisational charts and already encourage free and frank discussion, some of these solutions aren't as appropriate," he says.
— Australian Financial Review