From the Trenches: Google as Emergency Email Server

Chris Zawacki, Founding Partner, Greenhouse IT.
emergency.jpgAt the fragile early stage of establishing a small business, inevitable strains on limited IT resources can turn common technical glitches into seeming disasters.
A case in point is the recent experience of a client that develops educational testing software for children. Its twelve employees rely on only one server to manage email, file storage, printing, backup and everything else. So when their server dropped off line one afternoon, the sudden disruption of company operations put the office in a state of high stress.
They’d lost access to all files, emails, and everything else needed to stay productive. Making matters worse, the breakdown occurred in the middle of a software test requiring a high volume of communication with contacts outside the company. Facing potential delays in releasing their product if basic business functions weren’t restored immediately, the staff was forced to take innovative action.

Fortunately, their server was under warranty and we were able to get Dell to verify that a core part of the system had suffered a complete hardware failure. Dell could deliver a replacement part, but the prospect of system-wide downtime for the two-day shipping period was unacceptable. The only course was to arrange a temporary bridge until the replacement part arrived.
We restored their data from the server via a working, hard drive-based backup to one of their workstation PCs. They were able to access files temporarily through this PC. They set up printing functionality for each computer directly to a printer rather than to the networked configuration normally used. But the most critical challenge, especially given the ongoing software testing, was restoring email.
In considering an action plan, we looked to the company’s external antispam solution, Postini. All mail sent to the staff’s email addresses (domain name), first routed through Postini’s service and then on to their server. We suggested they take advantage of this routing and change the protocol to go, not from Postini to the company’s server, but from Postini to Google’s new business email service.
Along with instant implementation, Google’s service can be configured to send emails that appear to originate from the company’s Internet domain. As a result, outsiders receiving business emails through Google’s system have no inkling that any disruption has occurred to the company’s normal communications.
Within minutes, the ‘Gmail’ business account was set up along with email addresses for staff members. All incoming email was also routed through the new Gmail account. They simply logged into Gmail via the Internet with full email capabilities using their original email addresses. Once Dell’s replacement part arrived, the staff resumed normal network procedures.
There are useful lessons to draw from this incident. Though small business managers may lack resources to implement full-scale business continuity plans, a little baseline planning can often produce inexpensive, fast solutions to keep your staff up and running. In examining points of technical vulnerability that might impact staff and office productivity—call it the “what if?” game—you need to identify the most critical functions of your IT network. Providing some level of redundancy for these functions, or at minimum having a plan of action should a failure occur, is crucial to keeping stress levels low and productivity high.
ChrisZawacki_small.jpgChris is a founding Partner of Greenhouse IT. Greenhouse IT provides unlimited support of workstations, servers & networks to Manhattan-based small businesses for a fixed monthly fee. An environmentally friendly company, they work to meet green technology standards for clients whenever possible.