Norfolk County Council has revealed that it has been involved in the largest rollout of Google Apps, in terms of user numbers.

The council deployed Google Apps for Education to 148,000 registered users – school staff and children, with a buffer for leavers and joiners – nearly two years ago.

Spanish bank BBVA announced that it was adopting Google Apps for 110,000 employees last month.

Prior to Google, RM provided email access to all of Norfolk County Council's schools since 2002, as part of BT's managed internet service platform. BT also provides the internet service and a private WAN (Wide Area Network) to the county's schools.

But Norfolk decided in 2009 to move to a cloud-based email service, in a bid to reduce costs and to provide staff and students access to a more familiar email interface at school.

Another reason for the change was that: "[The RM email service] wasn't developing as we wanted to see it develop," said Michael Pickett, technical design architect at the council.

Norfolk weighed up its options, which included Microsoft's Live Apps, as well as Google Apps for Education.

"It was tough, they were both very competitive. Google really won it on the innovation side, and Google met our requirements for cloud delivery and open standards," said Pickett.

The council completed the Google Apps rollout in June 2010.

Open standards was important to Norfolk and its cloud strategy, to ensure interoperability with existing and new IT services.

For instance, the council uses Shibboleth, a standards-based, open-source software package for a web single sign-on infrastructure.

The single sign-on infrastructure means that users can move from one Shibboleth-supported service to another by only signing in the one time. For example, the council's users only need to sign in once when moving between Google Apps and its Espresso Primary digital curriculum service, which are both supported by Shibboleth.

Norfolk has also been part of SIF, the Schools Interoperability Framework, since 2007, which enables it to automate the movement of data securely around the education data model.

Each school has a management information system that contains basic information about staff and students. With the SIF, any time the management information is updated, the information is sent to a private cloud, and that information is sent to any system that needs it, for example, to the council's Microsoft SQL Server-based identity management system or its learning platforms.

"Our SIF and single sign-on underpin all of our cloud services," said Pickett.

He added: "Our open standards (Shibboleth and SIF) infrastructure for data interoperability and single sign-on ensures that we can avoid supplier lock-in, should we want to switch a service or add a new service. It also means that we can avoid often expensive and proprietary system integrations."

Norfolk currently allows access to Google Docs, including presentation, and Gmail, to users, but has restricted access to applications such as Google Chat. It sorts schools into organisational units, which allows certain units to have access to specific applications, if they need it. For example, the council can provide access to Google video to just the staff and students in one particular organisational unit.

The council is also exploring the development of a Norfolk app store, which will include only those applications that meet certain criteria, such as fitting in the SIF infrastructure, having web accessibility and supporting single sign-on.

"We will evaluate different software services, and if a product meets these requirements, it will go in the Norfolk app store and schools can look at that and know the service works," said Pickett.

Another area of Google investment that Norfolk is currently trialling is in the search giant's Chromebooks. The council currently has 22 Chromebooks running in two schools, and three in IT for support purposes. The expectation is that the Google Chromebooks could significantly reduce the management overheads.

"You potentially don't need a directory service in a school, or back-up services. A school could move to Chromebooks and everything would be done in the cloud. We don't have to send engineers out to fix things.

"The beauty of the Chromebook is you haven't got the traditional applications. If the device goes wrong, it's really just a swap-out solution," said Pickett.

If the pilot goes well, he added, the council would look to recommending the device to schools looking to reduce their overall IT costs.