Cloud Email: The Good, the Bad, and the Uptime
Numerous advantages are driving cloud email adoption. Migrating email to the cloud offers campuses substantial financial savings and eliminates on-site mail system infrastructure. Schools avoid email server backups, shrink email support time, off-load maintenance, and bypass the need for server-based anti-virus, anti-spam and email filtering products, according to Rich Brown, founder of Dartware, a network monitoring software developer, and a former network manager at Dartmouth College. Decent uptime (when service is up without any downtime) is usually a benefit, as well.
The journey to the cloud can involve the whole campus or students only. "It has become common for schools to split email and send students to free cloud mail services," says Les Lloyd, chief information officer of Saint Leo University (Fla.). Institutions such as Abilene Christian University (Texas) have moved faculty and staff as well as students to the cloud.
IT leaders at institutions looking to make the switch should take advantage of the positives and avoid potential drawbacks such as security, privacy, integration, migration and downtime. The process, experts say, involves due diligence—thoroughly investigating competing service offerings, planning for integration and migration, and negotiating contracts vigorously. Here's more on the biggest considerations for sending email systems to the cloud.
Apart from the costs of planning and migrating and integrating cloud email with on-site mail, cloud email is available free of charge to higher education. In light of costs for standard email, free is really something.
Saint Leo moved 30,000 students from a client-server email platform to Microsoft's free Windows Live two years ago. The school moved faculty to MS Exchange due to concerns over security and confidentiality. While Exchange cost $15 per person to set up, Windows Live cost nothing. "It was one thing to move the faculty to MS Exchange. It would have cost $450,000 to move 30,000 students there," says Lloyd.
Storage and maintenance are mostly the responsibility of the cloud provider.
Abilene Christian University, meanwhile, saved one third more than Saint Leo and gained a technical staff member. IT measures the savings realized from moving to Gmail using a year-on-year cost basis, over the last five years. "Our costs for email were about $120,000 per year on Webmail, including server hardware, software licensing and an email administrator," says Kevin Roberts, chief planning and information officer for the institution. Gmail is free. "And we were able to repurpose our email administrator's job, making him a software engineer," Roberts explains.
Smaller schools also see ample rewards in the cloud. Susquehanna University (Pa.) saved an annually recurring TCO of $7,000 to $8,000 by moving students from MS Exchange to Gmail, according to Mark Huber, chief information officer. Susquehanna now supports 5,000 students, and alumni, on Gmail.
These figures should not be surprising. "The overall cost is almost always less for cloud email, especially when you factor in repurposing support personnel that maintained a locally installed email system," says Tom West, chief information officer at Nova Southeastern University (Fla.).
Where there are cloud costs, they are usually incurred by planning and in the migration/integration processes. "Even with cloud email, there will be a lot of planning, because a lot of email will be provided to a lot of constituents indefinitely," says Brown. "That planning costs money." Consultants, overtime for meetings, conferring with faculty, staff and students, getting their feedback—all these steps have associated costs. "It is one thing for an individual to decide to go from one email provider to another. It is quite another thing to have the school's administration and IT department tell the school's constituents they have to change over their email," Brown explains.
Integration and migration are also difficult. It took Microsoft about six months to deploy Windows Live at Saint Leo. Deployment would have been faster, according to Lloyd, but the school tied the new email system to its Datatel Colleague ERP system so that student registration automatically triggers email account creation.
A cloud provider can help ease these steps, so administrators would do well to seek vendors to assist with these deployment gotcha's. For example, Microsoft provided Saint Leo with support for the data system connection by helping the school convert the campus to Microsoft Active Directory, the vendor's technology for storing IDs and passwords. "Once that was installed, the interface between our system and Windows Live was straightforward," says Lloyd. "If we had been on Active Directory when we started with Windows Live, the deployment would have taken about a month."
Hamilton College (N.Y.) also had a lengthy deployment. Testing and deployment included a pilot project with 100-plus members of the campus community from February to June 2009. Conversion planning took from July to December 2009 and the complete conversion took from January 2010 to June of that year.
Storage Costs and Maintenance
Cloud storage costs are part of what comes gratis. Storage costs for an onsite mail solution add up when you include powerful server hardware and many disks. "And if you are using a licensed mail server such as Exchange Server, there is a significant cost there as well," says Brown. When Hamilton College officials break down those costs annually, its previous SunOne solution (later acquired by Oracle and renamed Oracle Communications Suite) cost approximately $40,000 per year, not to mention half of one full-time employee for support, according to David Smallen, vice president of IT at Hamilton.
Like storage, maintenance is mostly the responsibility of the cloud provider. Abilene Christian has not experienced any maintenance-related issues such as unreasonable amounts of down time, says Roberts, adding that he never needs to worry about Gmail's down time.
Saint Leo University had a similar experience with its Microsoft solution. Windows Live has no maintenance costs except for staff time spent dealing with password and initial account setup issues. These issues can come from Windows Live, the Colleague system, or both. What it boils down to is that the student may not have registered yet or someone might have mistyped the student's name into Colleague creating the account improperly, Lloyd explains. But, these issues take less time than if the school was maintaining the hardware and anti-spam and anti-virus software, such as with MS Exchange. "And login/account issues come up no matter what email system we use," says Lloyd.
Concerns Over Cloud Migration
Most schools don't seem to have many cloud email woes. At Abilene Christian University, the primary concern was to protect email. "One way to do that is to control everything yourself," says Roberts, "but those concerns are more emotional than rational. It is like feeling that your money will be safer in your mattress than in the bank. The bank is really better at keeping your money safe than you are. And Google is better at email than we are."
Administrators at other schools concur. "We have seen far fewer spam and phishing emails reach our users since switching to Gmail," says John Duff, chief information officer of Eckerd College (Fla.). "People have been phished and given out their passwords to phishers," says Lloyd, "but this happens more in MS Exchange than with Windows Live."
Lloyd's concerns have been mostly around confidentiality issues. "But the policies of Microsoft and Google follow anything that would be necessary for confidentiality. And the student emails don't carry student grades and things that are confidential," Lloyd says.
Still, there are precautions to consider before entering into a contract with a cloud provider. "Vet the cloud vendor thoroughly," advises Rennie Muzii, a managing director in Marsh's FINPRO practice. Technology companies try to have as little liability as possible when entering into contracts. Generally, the law will say that the cloud provider has to be as responsible as the university because it is an extension of the school's business, Muzii assures.
Also confirm the provider's ability to live up to service level agreements (SLAs) and that insurance would cover errors and omissions, in case there are issues. Even that may not be enough, Muzii says. "A large technology company may have limited liability. The school should get an exception to that for breaches to confidential information so that they are covered."
People's fears around moving email to the cloud are like the fears of old world sailors around traveling to the edge of the world.
If someone has violated email privacy, particularly faculty and staff email privacy where confidential information is concerned, there are state and federal laws guiding how the school responds. "If the email is not sitting in the school's system, the institution is reliant on the cloud provider to enable eDiscovery," says Jim Leonard, a senior executive in Marsh's FINPRO practice. So be aware of a cloud provider's provisions for eDiscovery before you commit. Insist on a contractual right to the servers that store institutional data.
- Gmail for Business (part of Google Apps for Business)
- Intermapper (Dartware's network monitoring software)
- Marsh FINPRO
- MS Exchange
Experiences around downtime with cloud email vary widely. When The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania outsourced its email to Microsoft's Office Live in August 2009, users experienced many issues around uptime, according to Deirdre Woods, chief information officer of the school. "We run Exchange here at Wharton. We did a lot of work to make it work with Office Live," says Woods.
But the downtime was much greater than they experienced with their internal email system. "There were hours of downtime. We had assumptions that it would run similar to our own email service. It was disappointing to see that they couldn't match our uptime," Woods recalls.
"There were also significant email delivery issues due to spam. We have mailing lists where we communicate with our students. Jobs are important to our students. They would get very delayed messages about meetings with recruiters," Woods explains. In one instance, Wharton experienced a 12-hour delay in receiving email. They brought their mail back in-house again in May 2010, leaving the Office Live cloud email service (Wharton has no experience with Office365 or other Microsoft cloud email products). "We were early adopters and Microsoft was very helpful in transitioning us back to our Exchange environment," acknowledges Woods.
Saint Leo's experience was much better than Wharton's. "In three years, there have been two or three periods of downtime," says Lloyd, "and not for significant amounts of time. There has not been as much downtime as with MS Exchange." Nova Southeastern University has had similar experiences with Live@EDU. "In the three years we've been working with Live @ EDU, downtime can be measured in hours and for the most part was planned maintenance or system updates. When a local installation goes down, it often goes down for an extended period. With cloud-based email, outages are rare and of limited duration," says West.
"Downtime with Gmail is minimal and losing email is not at all likely," says Roberts. "Google designs systems so there is no single point of failure." In the only memorable incident, according to Roberts, users could not get Gmail for about 10 minutes. Then it was back up with no lost email.
Gmail actually improved uptime at Hamilton College. "The ability to deal with down time issues was enhanced by taking advantage of Google's expertise. Google has been incredibly reliable—probably better than our in-house email system when considering the down time we needed when doing our own upgrades," Smallen explains. There is no downtime for upgrades with Gmail.
But good uptime is not a given. To have some type of guarantee, administrators should ask for a certain percentage of uptime in the SLAs in their contracts with cloud email providers, according to Leonard. The contract should allow for penalties to the provider if they cannot meet uptime requirements.
Cloud email services are generally compatible with popular email clients. "Office365 supports Outlook on Windows PCs and Macs. You can use all the popular email clients such as Thunderbird and Apple Mail too," says Brown.
Abilene Christian University uses Outlook. "There are plug-ins to make Gmail work in Outlook," Roberts affirms.
"The new release of Windows Live looks just like Outlook," says Lloyd. You can set MS Outlook to pull email from Windows Live too. In fact, students at Saint Leo can use Outlook or any other email client with Windows Live, whether they are working on a PC or a Mac.
The cost of cloud email is significantly less than an onsite email installation, if not nil. And no one should avoid adoption out of fear. "There are enough schools with experience in this now that people thinking about it can be confident about sending email to the cloud," says Lloyd.
Roberts agrees. People's fears around moving email to the cloud are like the fears of old world sailors around traveling to the edge of the world. "They believed there were dragons waiting there," says Roberts; they were afraid to go. "There are no dragons here in the cloud. It is actually a pretty nice place to be."
David Geer is an Ohio-based technology journalist. His Twitter handle is @geercom.
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