Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Outsourcing email to Google

This morning's session looked at one University's experience of outsourcing their student email service to Google. Very good session - lots of questions, reflecting the interest in the sector. Overall the implementation had gone very well - the technological side had been a success, and overall student satisfaction was high, particularly as all students got 2Gb storage, and access to Google calendar. However there were issues, and it wasn't all plain sailing. I was quite disappointed that some of the issues identified when I attended a presentation at EDUCAUSE last year still hadn't been satisfactorily addressed. Change control is a particular problem with Google releasing updates and changes with no notice at all - students finding out about them before the University did. In some cases instructions for using the service were rendered useless, and in one case the service was lost as the integration with the University Directory service was broken. But, overall the service was much improved on what was being offered before.

It is something we need to consider carefully - isn't student email now just a commodity? Why are we running a service which can be provided free of charge by a service provider? All students come to us with an email address now anyway, and we can't give them the storage they want and which Google can give them. Issues we will be looking at carefully as we decide whether to roll out Zimbra mail and calendar to all members of the University, or roll it out to staff only and go with Google for students.

Will any University be running an email service at all in 5 years time?


Anonymous said...

"Will any University be running an email service at all in 5 years time? "

I seriously think not

Owen said...

I'd be interested to know if any work has been done asking students whether they want a University email address? I generally feel that giving students who already have an email another email is redundant, and speaks more to Universities desire to have some level of control rather than any service to the student. However, as a member of staff I maintain a work and personal email address - and I try to keep the two separate as far as I can - perhaps students want to do the same. (having said this due to various other complexities and the blogging system you use, I now find myself linking this comment to my 'personal' account!)

Anonymous said...

What would happen if a student breached the terms and conditions of the email provider (used it for spamming say) - and they suspended the account?

Also why it assumed that google is the de facto choice of provider?
What about microsoft or yahoo etc. etc.?

Anonymous said...

And what happens if Google (or whoever) goes bust? Highly unlikely in Google's case but putting email provision in the hands of any commercial 3rd party exposes you to a lot of risks that otherwise wouldn't be a concern.

Plus giving students a university account means you always have the correct contact details for them.

If the university really doesn't want to provide the masses of storage students want though, then how about providing a university address that forwards to their existing address?

Or if there is an insistence on outsourcing, then how about the HE sector creates it's own centralised "gmail" service? Storage is cheap, there must be plenty of programming talent available and the institutions involved could fund it through the money saved by not running their own student email...

Anonymous said...

...or what happens if Google is broken?...


Anonymous said...

I was just about to post that but you beat me to it. But the fact the Gmail is currently out of action raises issues such as what sort of SLA could you have in place with such organisations?

Also I read the papers referred to in another posting about outsourcing mail services and a major concern was who actually owns the content? in a research driven environment you'd certainly want to keep some things confidential not open to abuse by a service provider who in the EULA of chrome stated that all content uploaded via this product was theirs to use as they liked.

Anonymous said...

"isn't student email now just a commodity? Why are we running a service which can be provided free of charge by a service provider?"

A commodity is sometimes only a commodity if you ignore other aspects - take rice for instance: at the most basic level rice is just rice, and any rice will do if you only care about satisfying a contract that demands "rice".

But rice isn't all the same. You can buy rice with better flavour, rice with extra nutrients, fair trade rice, organic rice, or rice with industrial contaminants.

Students can already get Google mail for free themselves. If an HE institution is going to provide an email service it should be differentiating itself, offering additional value, things like local support, data recovery, privacy and security, and so on.

Google are treating the user as a commodity. A University should be aiming to treat its users better.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous who said "putting email provision in the hands of any commercial 3rd party exposes you to a lot of risks that otherwise wouldn't be a concern":

Many Universities are using vendors to service their in-house systems anyway, or are using proprietary systems like Outlook and Exchange, or are running proprietary operating systems, proprietary hardware, etc. etc. Any IT shop is going to be dependent at some level on somebody staying in business.

The most powerful quote of the entire post that addresses this issue was this:

"But, overall the service was much improved on what was being offered before."

Bottom line, done.

It has been my experience that many academic IT departments want to retain total control by rolling their own everything and keeping job security in the process. However, this attitude and approach is potentially understandable.

Once upon a time, "rolling your own" was the only way you could have e-mail and Internet access, because only Universities had it, and Universities were the cutting edge of development of such services.

However, such services have long become ubiquitous and standard platforms. Standard platforms have emerged and matured, and huge corporations and governments now depend on these technologies as mission-critical core infrastructure, alongside heating, plumbing, and electric. Can you imagine a University manufacturing its own plumbing, rolling out their own electrical wiring, retaining engineers to design furnaces? The dean of Engineering (as brilliant as he may be) is never in charge of the Physical Plant.

The sea-change in the technological reality will require a corresponding sea-change in the culture of academic IT departments. It won't be easy, but it has to happen.

Let the computer science department do the research. IT has to "just work." Period.

Anonymous said...

A lot of crying about Google going bust, unwillingness to change... babwahahahah. What if Microsoft goes bust?

More organizations should do this and save lots of bucks by stepping off the Microsoft treadmill.

Right now I am stuck on an old MS Exchance system that is old, failing and and they are not going to upgrade. Nor can we use google. 40mb limit sucks.