IT Happens

In last month’s column, I looked at the educational pros and cons of giving eMail accounts to all students in a school. I think a convincing argument could be made for either side of this question, but once a school makes the decision to provide eMail to its students, it must decide how to provide this service.

In the days before internet access was widespread, the only real option for eMail was to create and maintain a private system on a school’s local area network (LAN). Now that network access to the internet is more common in schools, however, many network administrators are turning to web-based eMail systems, such as Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail, to avoid some of the headaches of maintaining a private eMail system.

This month, I’d like to look at some of the issues involved in the decision to outsource your eMail.

I realize that I’m using the word “outsource” rather loosely when I refer to using services like Yahoo! Mail. The word implies that there is some official contract with the school and the service provider—and obviously there is no contract in this case. In fact, one of the biggest benefits of a solution like this is that the school does not have to do anything to set it up. The students set up and manage their own accounts.

Furthermore, network administrators never have to deal with forgotten passwords, mail that doesn’t get through the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) gateway, vanishing disk space, or any other management headaches associated with maintaining an eMail system. I have also heard it suggested that under certain circumstances, schools are less liable for student criminal behavior involving eMail when the eMail system is not owned and maintained by the school.

Unfortunately, the advantage of a “hands-off” approach is also one of the biggest disadvantages of web-based mail. While services like Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail have saved school network managers untold hours of management headaches, schools will want to consider whether or not they are willing to give up that much control over a service their children will be using as much as their word processors.

For example, as the owners of our eMail system, we are very clear with students that school eMail is not private, and that if we have reason to believe they are using their account in violation of the school’s acceptable use policy, we will examine the contents of their mailbox. This would not be possible with a student’s Hotmail account, unless the school obtained a search warrant.

I also do not want to give up control of address management. I think eMail address standards are important. People know that a person’s eMail address on our network is the first initial of the person’s first name followed by the first seven letters of his or her last name.

If a student is receiving inappropriate eMail, I also like the idea that I can change his user ID and he doesn’t have to lose any messages. In addition, managing a centralized address book gives us the ability to create mailing lists that everyone has access to, such as “faculty,” “administration,” and “class of 2001.” While individuals can create their own mailing lists in web-based eMail, there is no central control over them. When new faculty members are hired or if a new student transfers into the district, everyone would be responsible for updating their own private address books, which could create some confusion.

From a maintenance standpoint, an in-house system offers a certain amount of comfort. If something breaks in my server room, I know that I’m in control, and I generally have a pretty good idea how long it will take to fix it. While large companies like Yahoo! and Hotmail probably have redundancy that I can only dream of, it makes me feel better to be able to put my own hands on the problem.

Additionally, if a school has a local eMail system and its internet connection goes down, the school can still send and receive eMail locally while its SMTP gateway will store all mail sent to the internet until the connection comes back up. With a web-based system, there is nothing the users can do but wait.

Price is one of the major reasons many schools opt for a web-based system for their eMail. Free is certainly a price you’d have to consider seriously. But schools also should realize that there are private systems that are inexpensive or even free. Pegasus Mail is free eMail software that originally was designed to work in a Novell environment, but there are versions now that run on Macintosh and Windows systems. Major vendors such as Novell and Microsoft also offer district licensing and subscription plans that allow schools to implement GroupWise or Exchange for less than a dollar per student.

Another major advantage of web-based eMail is that it is, well, web-based. The ability to access your mailbox from anywhere around the world is an exciting concept. Most decent private eMail systems offer a web interface that makes this possible, but students have to give up their school-based eMail addresses when they graduate or transfer. Web-based eMail addresses, on the other hand, will stay with students for as long as they want them to.

When we first designed our network, we installed Novell’s GroupWise as our in-house eMail system. From the beginning, we gave students and faculty their own GroupWise accounts. While we didn’t encourage students to get outside eMail accounts through the web, we didn’t restrict them from doing so, either.

A few years ago, however, we changed this policy when we began to think that students’ use of Hotmail was becoming distracting and counterproductive. Most disturbing was the fact that students had found the personal ad section of Hotmail. On several occasions, I found students who had started correspondences with people they had met through the Hotmail personal ads.

In some cases, students had shared personal information with someone whose identity they couldn’t possibly verify. In other cases, students had set up meetings with people with whom they had corresponded. When this issue turned into a very real safety concern, we decided to add Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail to our list of sites blocked on our proxy server.

When a school is ready to implement an eMail system, a number of factors should be considered. In addition to management and policy issues, schools should prioritize these features when balancing the convenience and price of a web-based solution against a more tightly managed in-house system:

• Integration with other network management tools

• Ability to set mailbox size limits and manage disk space usage

• Shared calendar/scheduling function

• Group editing or viewing of documents

• Access to mailbox from a web browser

• Ability to restrict use of SMTP gateway by user name

• Ability to restrict size of attachments

• Protection from mail bomb attacks

• Ability to block mail from certain domains, such as porn sites and spam

• Connectivity to multiple mail systems from the client software

• POP3 access to mail accounts

While some of these features are offered on web-based and in-house systems, most require the centralized control that comes only with a private LAN-based system. No LAN system is perfect in each area, and when you make a decision, there will be give and take with some features.

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