THE MILLIONS OF FRESHMEN HEADING to college this semester will have to go through many changes in their daily routine as they transition into their new life on campus. Getting familiar with a shiny new .edu e-mail account won't be on some of these long to-do lists, however, since more and more higher ed institutions have started to outsource their e-mail operations to the market giants: Microsoft and Google.
E-mail outsourcing isn't a new practice in higher education. While some IHEs have been managing homegrown e-mail systems or off-the-shelf e-mail servers, others have favored a hosted solution provided by external vendors for a long time. Usually charged by the number of accounts, disk space, and bandwidth usage, the outsourced e-mail solution offers flexibility and peace of mind. But the price to pay has almost always been far higher.
Waging a war to grab and keep the eyeballs of more and more users, Microsoft--quickly followed by Google in 2006--put this e-mail outsourcing equation upside down in 2005. After the launch of Live@edu, Microsoft's suite of online-hosted communications services, including Hotmail and Office Live Workspace, what used to cost thousands of dollars or more per year became virtually free-overnight.
This paradigm shift even pushed some e-mail solutions providers serving the higher education market, such as Mirapoint, to come up with attractive new options. Last December, the company that provides appliance-based comprehensive messaging solutions to more than 200 institutions around the world counterattacked with an offer designed to grab the attention of e-mail outsourcing proponents. Mirapoint announced its plan to offer free student email licenses to higher ed institutions so that they can take advantage of free e-mail accounts for students without losing control of the institution's own user base.
Earlier versions of Microsoft and Google e-mail services were designed with the same type of ads served on any regular Gmail or Hotmail e-mail accounts. However, this setting was quickly waived for students by both companies. Even though both Microsoft and Google have shown a strong commitment to education, the move to remove ads from free student accounts had nothing to do with altruism. It simply made sense for the business.
"We removed the ads at the request of our customers," says Jeff Keltner, a Google Apps for Edu product manager. Google looks at this service as a way to grow its user base and an investment that will pay off in the long term.
"Our goal is to introduce students to the service, have them fall in love with it, and use it for life. ... We turn webmail banner ads on when students graduate and become alumni," says Bruce Gabrielle, Microsoft Live@edu senior product manager.
Today, Microsoft and Google report thousands of colleges, universities, and K-12 schools enrolled in their respective programs around the world. Both have been hard at work to convince even more institutions to adopt their free services.
In March 2005, South Dakota State University was among the first five institutions retained for the beta test of Live@edu. The others: Ball State University (Ind.), Indiana University Alumni Association, The University of Texas-Pan American, and Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. "We had a mainframe-based system that only about 15 percent of the students actually used," says Michael Adelaine, CIO at South Dakota State. The institution needed a vehicle to communicate with more than just a fraction of its student population. Most students were using Hotmail as their personal primary e-mail service. The move to Live@edu was natural, especially since Google Apps for Edu wasn't part of the picture at that time. From 1,000 e-mail accounts in 2005 to 12,000 now, South Dakota State University has come a long way and reached a student e-mail usage rate of almost 80 percent. Mission accomplished.
Looking for new approaches to technology in order to support its growth goals, Arizona State University, under CTO Adrian Sannier's lead, had decided to get out of businesses not core to its mission when discussions started with Google in October 2006. "ASU representatives met with Google to discuss the possibility of deploying the Google Apps for Edu suite to the ASU community," recalls Sannier. Two weeks later, ASU had deployed its first application, Gmail for ASU, to replace ASU's homegrown student e-mail system.
The day ASU announced the new service, students converted their e-mail accounts to Gmail for ASU at the rate of 300 per hour. In the first two weeks, several thousand more made the switch. "In almost no time at all, Gmail for ASU accounts had been created for a student community of more than 65,000," adds Sannier.
This case study about ASU's incredible 10-day implementation has been used by e-mail outsourcing proponents ever since to pique the interest of top executives and convince undecided IT administrators in many institutions.
At Case Western Reserve University (Ohio), the ASU implementation was cited as an example in the business case--available online on the Case Wiki--built to review all available options after the university's e-mail system vendor, Sun Microsystems, announced that the version of the product they used was at its "end of life" and would not be patched in the future. Case Western administrators finally wound up choosing Google Apps for Edu as the university's e-mail solution.
While these early adopters have been satisfied by their decision to outsource all or part of their e-mail operations to Microsoft or Google, administrators at most IHEs are probably wondering if their own institutions should follow these trailblazers.
It all depends on the "e-mail problem" that needs to be solved at the institution, but it's crucial to address the following questions before making a decision.
These aren't small questions for any institution that must comply with specific laws and directives such as the Family Education Right Privacy Act (FERPA) and e-discovery, requiring a stricter control of certain type of data. It can even get more complex for public universities, as other state regulations may apply.
Although the final answers to these questions will have to be specifically addressed in contractual terms, Google and Microsoft offer several blanket guarantees in terms of server backup, redundancy, security, and privacy. As the leaders of the e-mail market, both companies are used to protecting huge amounts of data and, as a result, have implemented very reliable and secure systems. "By partnering with a company like Google for our student e-mail system, we have been afforded a system reliability and security level that is beyond what a public institution would reasonably deploy," confirms Sannier.
Privacy requirements can be slightly different in higher education to what Microsoft and Google were used to. For example, with the protection of educational records under FERPA, both companies quickly understood that compliance was a crucial condition to service adoption among institutions. Tracy Mitrano, director of IT policy at Cornell University, says the best way to handle concerns over privacy issues in the case of e-mail outsourcing is to make clear in the contract that the vendor will follow the set of rules defined by the institution itself.
Microsoft and Google also provide access to end-user accounts to help administrators deal with discovery requests or other internal processes. "In fact, our acquisition of Postini, and the subsequent release of Google Apps Security and Compliance products, can be a big help for universities on this front," says Keltner.
At Microsoft, the introduction of Exchange Labs as an alternative to Hotmail has resulted in a lot more control over the content of student inboxes. Administrators can confirm if an e-mail was delivered. "They can create filters that locate certain types of e-mails, and they can access the content of a student's inbox for auditing and compliance reasons," says Gabrielle.
Microsoft Live@edu and Google Apps for Edu are indeed offered at no cost to colleges and universities. While Google indicates on its website that no server, no hardware, and no consulting are required, Microsoft does mention a premium option offering a more automated "set it and forget it" synchronization, Microsoft Identity Lifecycle Manager, which comes with some software requirements and attached costs.
At Bryant University (R.I.), Live@edu was implemented to provide an e-mail account for life to the university's alumni, a group that now numbers 38,000. The total cost for servers, licensing, and staff integration services was minimal, far less than $10,000. "To implement this service in-house would require additional staff, SAN storage space, servers, data center expansion, bandwidth, spam filtering software," says Philip Lombardi, director of Academic Computing and Media Services. The regular costs associated with these requirements would definitely prevent Bryant from offering this service to its alumni. At South Dakota State, the initial savings associated with the implementation of Live@edu was estimated at $100,000. Michael Adelaine explains that today he has just one half-time graduate assistant managing the university's end of the process. Not bad for 12,000 e-mail accounts.
For IT leaders at Abilene Christian University (Texas), the switch from an obsolete e-mail system to Google Apps for Edu had an unexpected but welcome outcome. When discussions started with Google, CIO Kevin Roberts was looking for a new full-time e-mail administrator after the job became vacant. Once the decision was made to go with Google, the funds for this full-time position were reallocated toward a higher-level developer position instead.
The feedback is similar at ASU. "Our help desk calls concerning e-mail have decreased by over 30 percent, and we have reallocated over $500,000 a year to other core initiatives," says Sannier.
Don't worry. The following points will help anyone avoid sounding like a Google fanatic or a Microsoft evangelist.
While the familiarity with the e-mail interface might be a given for students and young alums, some staff and faculty members will resist this newly imposed change to their daily routine. More training and support might be necessary to help some users overcome the stress generated by the switch. That's why it's very important to obtain as much buy-in as possible before signing any contracts.
Moving thousands of e-mail accounts from a local network to the internet will also have some impact on bandwidth usage--especially if students start to use heavily the other collaboration features also offered for documents, photos, events, and more. The resulting higher demand might not be a showstopper, depending on the institution, but it will definitely need to be factored into the equation.
Last but not least, the biggest questions your institution will need to address might require a crystal ball or a knowledgeable insider at Google or Microsoft: Will these solutions remain free forever? What's the plan B if their future costs exceed what the institution's budget can bear? With the answer to these questions, it will be time to make a final decision on this new type of e-mail outsourcing. That is, unless the decision is to follow the path of Drexel University (Pa.) in this domain.
In January 2008, the university launched LinkEdu for its students. It combines both Google's and Microsoft's outsourced services with Drexel's in-house e-mail system. Students have the option to use any or all of the LinkEdu services, and each account comes with a different drexel.edu-branded e-mail address. As John A. Bielec, Drexel's chief information officer, explained in the press release announcing the launch of LinkEdu, the goal for these different accounts was to allow students to communicate their university affiliation without commingling the different groups--family, friends, classmates, etc.--with whom they are in contact.
At the opposite end of this spectrum, Rebecca Gould, director of the Information Technology Assistance Center at Kansas State University, and Elizabeth Unger, K-State's vice provost for Academic Services and Technology, made a thought-provoking suggestion in "A Solution Looking for a Problem," an article they co-authored for the May-June 2008 issue of Educause Review: "In the case of providing e-mail services for a college or university, perhaps providing nothing is actually the best option."
And here's another question to consider altogether: With the advent of social networking websites as major communication channels for students, is e-mail going to become obsolete-as phone lines in dorms have?
Only time will tell.
Karine Joly writes the Internet Technology column for University Business. She is also the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technology, as well as a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college.