Like the Windows, Mac and Linux environments -- and the "app markets" for the iPhone, Android, Blackberry and other smartphones -- Google Apps isn't just a growing double handful of products from Google; it's a daily-growing ecosystem of third-party apps. (For example, see InformationWeek's Top 15 Google Apps For Business.)
So while it's possible to buy direct from Google, many companies, from SMBs up through enterprises, are turning to channel intermediaries, the same way they do for hardware and software.
Companies like Cloud Sherpas are providing the channel/ISV role for companies looking to move to and use Google Apps.
"We are in between Google and the customer," says Michael Cohn, VP Marketing, Cloud Sherpas. "We resell Google Apps, and we provide the services associated with them, including assessment, testing, piloting before your company would decide, through the entire migration, training, support and custom application development."
Cloud Sherpas customers range from as small as a few hundred users, to large enterprises, says Cohn. According to Cohn, the company "has migrated hundreds of thousands of users from Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes, and Novell GroupWise to Google in the past two years. For example, we've moved companies with as few as 200 users, and just moved one with 950 users."
In the process of administering company and user migrations to Google Apps, Cloud Sherpas evolved its own best practices... and saw some of the challenges and frustrations that their customers, and other Google Apps users, were facing.
Their response, SherpaTools, a Google Apps add-on for managing a company's Google Apps environment and users, and also to provide additional features for users. "Given that our focus is on the day-to-day administration of Google Apps, it makes sense that our tools would help our customers." Sherpa started as an administrative tool, but, says Cohn, "We're continuing to add end user features."
Like Google Apps itself, SherpaTools is SaaS, access via web browsers, not requiring any on-site software, hardware, installation or updating. Launched a few months ago, SherpaTools is already being used by over 5,000 administrators in 5,000 Google domains, representing a total of over 600,000 users.
SherpaTools is intended as "the ultimate companion app" for all Google Apps installations, according to Cohn. "SherpaTools is meant to fill in some of the gaps in the Google Apps control panel."
According to Cloud Sherpas, "SherpaTools provides essential, complimentary modules for Google Apps that enhance the functionality and ease-of-use for administrators and end-users."
For example, says Cohn, "Many administrators, particularly in the mid-market, want more directory management. When you move to the cloud, if you want to get all your infrastructure out of your site, some organizations will no longer have a directory, like Active Directory or LDAP, on premise. But managing a directory within Google Apps can be a challenge. You can add a user, put them in a group...but you can't provide the same kind of rich profile information for a new user. SherpaTools lets administrators do this, easily."
SherpaTools also offers access control more granular than Google Apps' all-or-none, so, for example, Help Desk staff can be given limited administrative power for doing tasks like password changes, without getting root access in the process. Plus, says Cohn, SherpaTools implements some of the work flow best practices that Cloud Sherpas has learned, like aggregating the six or so steps involved in de-provisioning a user into a single screen.
SherpaTools also gives end users some features, visible as a DropDown from GoogleApps, like Directory Bot, a Google Talk IM software agent that can quickly and easily retrieve information for other users from the company directory, for when it's not in your own address book.
SherpaTools is available through the Google Marketplace, which is where an administrator can add a new application to their domain in just two or three clicks.
SherpaTools Standard is available for free to everyone running Google Apps Premier or Education edition (it doesn't work with free Google Apps Standard Edition), via the Google Apps Marketplace. Companies who purchase their Google Apps licenses from Cloud Sherpas, rather than directly from Google, get SherpaTools Premium at no additional cost.
So if you're looking at Google Apps to simplify your existing IT -- or to address some new activities -- but are concerned about adding new, different IT complexity and costs, SherpaTools sounds like a good management tool.