Archive for July, 2009

Why the move to Gmail?

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Why are we changing the student email system?

Universities were early adopters (and in some cases the actual developers) of email as a communications service. As the many benefits of this service became apparent, universities began to implement systems to provide email to all students. At that time, an email account could fairly be seen as a perk, a tangible benefit of university enrollment that added definite value to the student experience. The university as a whole benefited from the improved communications capabilities.

As the Internet has evolved to become a ubiquitous communications platform and a common element in our daily lives, email has become a commodity item. Free accounts are offered by a number of reliable providers; students no longer depend on university-hosted email services. Even with continuing upgrades our own services have not been able to keep pace with the free offerings in terms of features and capacity.

We began to consider whether our continuing investments in hardware, software, and staff time were worth the benefits provided, given the easy availability of free services with excellent capabilities. Even though we make use of free software as much as possible to minimize costs, the UA student email system is not inexpensive. The current system utilizes 7 servers and over 1 TB of storage, and the millions of messages processed per month add to the load on a number of other systems (message routing and spam filtering, authentication, backups, etc). Managing the systems requires considerable staff time as well.

Recently, two of the major players in the free email account space, Microsoft and Google, have seen the value in trying to capture the attention of the demographically desirable college student population. They developed special offerings targeted specifically at the higher education market. Both offerings provide free, hosted email accounts but allow educational institutions to maintain some control over these services. By partnering with one of these providers, the University is able to offer an improved email service while eliminating the costs of maintaining our own hardware and reducing staff time required for managing the system.

Why did we choose Gmail?

We investigated the offerings from both Microsoft and Google. We compared the features and functionality, the system management interfaces, the migration tools, and single signon integration capabilities. We also considered the additional applications bundled with the email service (calendar, instant messaging, document storage and collaboration tools, web pages, etc). It has not been easy to compare the offerings feature-for-feature as the competition is apparently driving both companies to enhance their services at a rapid pace. Most importantly, we recruited students to test the services and provide feedback. The student pilot testers much preferred Gmail, the Google offering.

Gmail provides a secure, innovative web-based email system with a huge storage capacity (currently 7 GB and growing), hosted on highly available hardware. In addition to the web interface, support is provided for POP and IMAP clients and mobile devices.

What other features are provided by the new system?

The email accounts provided for current students can be retained as they become alumni, effectively providing a new “email for life” service. We will automate the provisioning of the accounts as part of the UAnet ID system. The Zip Support center will remain the primary contact point for user assistance when answers can’t be found on the Gmail help pages. Alumni accounts may see unobtrusive text-based ads in the Gmail site sidebar, like those displayed for standard Gmail accounts, but active students will see no ads.

The email addresses will be UA-branded as “zips.uakron.edu”, and the Gmail website will be customized with a UA logo. Both students and alumni will login to the service directly from UA web pages, including single signon capabilities from Zipline, the UA web portal. These characteristics will help foster a continuing connection to the University of Akron for our alumni.

Other notable features of the Google Mail product include an excellent search function, very effective spam and virus filtering, and the ability to easily manage contacts and group mailing lists.

In addition to email, a number of additional applications are included in the Google Apps for Education offering. These include:

  • Google Calendar: a shareable calendar for meetings and events
  • Google Talk: an instant messaging program that also includes voice chat functions
  • Google Docs: a web-based document repository with collaborative editing capabilities for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation documents

We expect that Google will continue to provide enhancements to the service on a regular basis.

How and when will the migration happen?

It is our plan to make the service available to students during the fall semester. Much of the behind-the-scenes work to make this a successful migration has already been completed. We will make the conversion process for our students as easy as possible. Unlike other schools that have gone through a similar process, we will automate the copying of all current messages from the old system to the new one. We will also provide a way to transfer current address book information. Each student will have the opportunity to schedule the move at a personally convenient time.

Each student will have a new email address using the format UAnetID@zips.uakron.edu. For example, zippy@uakron.edu will become zippy@zips.uakron.edu. Because of this change in address, for a period of time the UA mail transport system will accept mail for the previous address and automatically forward it to the new address. This will give the student plenty of time to notify correspondents of the change in address.

For students who still prefer to use a different email system, Gmail provides the ability to forward mail to another address.

Conclusion

By partnering with Google, the University of Akron will be able to offer students and alumni a superior email service and reduce costs at the same time.