Google is testing a program to offer Gmail as an enterprise hosted email service, thus extending the scope of this webmail service from individuals to the realm of businesses, universities and other organisations.

The program makes Gmail the back-end service for all users on an organisation's email domain, with all necessary hardware and software provided by Google, according to a posting last week on the search engine operator's official blog.

Each end user will get 2GB of storage space. The service, called 'Gmail for your domain', also gives organisations a control panel for their IT departments to administer and manage user accounts, wrote Stephanie Hannon, Gmail product manager.

San Jose City College, in San Jose, California, is testing the service to power the email domain of its 10,000 students, Hannon wrote. Organisations interested in being part of this limited beta program can apply here.

It isn't clear from the information available on Google's site how much it costs to participate in the beta program, nor how much Google plans to charge for the service when it becomes generally available. Google didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.

Until now, Google has offered Gmail as a consumer-oriented webmail service. However, this program shows that the company has wider expectations for Gmail, which was introduced in April 2004 and is itself in beta mode.

Gmail isn't the first consumer service Google has tweaked to make it appealing to organisations and their IT departments. Google, which has a small but growing enterprise unit, sells the Search Appliance and Google Mini, which are hardware devices loaded with its search engine software. Organisations use the Search Appliance and Google Mini to index data on their internal servers.

Google also modified its free desktop-search application for consumers and created an enterprise version of it which has special administrative features for IT departments and additional features end users need in a workplace environment.