Schools turn to hosted eMail to save money

Converting to Google or Microsoft eMail systems is saving some colleges and universities upwards of half a million dollars annually, and the move has satisfied some students and faculty members who have clamored for an eMail interface with more applications and storage capability.

Many schools that have switched from campus-run eMail accounts to commercial accounts made the decision before last year’s economic recession hit, slashing campus budgets. But as IT dollars have dwindled, officials say the long-term savings of converting to an eMail provider that provides hosted, web-based service has proven critical to avoiding job cuts and maintaining IT staffing.

"eMail is more of a commodity now, so why should we spend resources running eMail servers when Google could do it for free and do it a lot better than we could do it?" said James Langford, director of web integration and programming at Abilene Christian University in Texas, which began converting its campus to Google eMail accounts–also called Gmail–in April 2007.

Langford said switching to Gmail meant the campus’s IT department did not have to run its own eMail servers–a major cost saving–and had the responsive Google help desk at its disposal.

"[Google’s] support is great. They’re responsive, and the service is fast and flexible and available all the time," said Langford, adding that a campuswide survey revealed that one-third of faculty, staff, and students already used Gmail. "We love it. … I can’t imagine having to go back and run all these services ourselves now. There’s almost no downside to it from our perspective."

Universities that do away with campus-run eMail systems could face service glitches in commercial eMail systems that have caused disruptions in the past year. In February, Google eMail accounts were down for four hours across Europe, Asia, and the United States. The crash began at 9:30 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, during the wee hours of the morning for most of the United States. Google made amends for the shutdown and gave 15 days of free service to organizations that pay for an upgraded version of Gmail.

Gmail accounts also were unavailable for a few hours last summer, but Google officials said the company’s service still trumps the reliability of other eMail services.

"Over the last year, Gmail has been available more than 99.9 percent of the time–for everyone, both consumers and business users," Matthew Glotzbach, Google’s product management director, wrote in the company’s blog. "The vast majority of people using Gmail have seen few issues, experienced no downtime, and have continued to have a great Gmail experience, with [the] exception of an outage in August 2008."

Glotzbach continued: "If you average all these data together, including the August outage, across the entire Gmail service, there has been an aggregate 10 to 15 minutes of downtime per month over the last year of providing the service. That 10 to 15 minutes per month average represents small delays of a couple of seconds here and there."

Campus IT administrators say college-run eMail systems often lack the storage capacity students have become accustomed to with commercial eMail services. Many commercial options offer individual users up to seven gigabytes of storage–several times the capacity of most university eMail accounts.

"Most institutions do not have commodity storage for mail systems and cannot afford to offer this level of storage," said Ellen Waite-Franzen, vice president of information technology and chief information officer at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where officials are considering a switch to a commercial eMail system. "It’s a constant complaint about our service."

Managing BlitzMail–Dartmouth’s current eMail system–costs the college about $200,000 yearly.

Unlike some budget decisions, IT officials said, choosing a cheaper eMail option does not mean the campus must sacrifice convenience or service. Campus decision makers who spoke with eCampus News said they have confidence in commercial services.

"Both Google and Microsoft are offering robust services, which they are continuing to develop," said Waite-Franzen. "It isn’t like we are looking at second-class services."

Students at the University of Texas at San Antonio began forwarding eMail messages from their school accounts to their Gmail accounts before the 28,000-student campus switch to Google services in December 2007, said Carolyn Ellis, a spokeswoman for the university’s office of information technology.

"A lot of students already used it … and the name has a lot of cache with them," said Ellis, who added that switching eMail systems was vetted through student leaders before a final decision was made. "It’s really something that is meant to improve students’ lives and their experience with eMail."

Using Microsoft or Google eMail comes with academic advantages. Langford at Abilene Christian University said the campus’s Gmail system allows faculty members to insert homework due dates and upcoming exam dates that show up on students’ Gmail calendars.

Langford said using Gmail has allowed the school to shut down three eMail servers, the campus’s anti-spam program, and hire one full-time IT employee. Langford and technology officials at other schools said they expect more universities to make the eMail switch as cost-cutting becomes mandatory on campuses nationwide.

"Regardless of the economy, we’re always looking for ways to maximize every dollar we get," said Ellis from the University of Texas at San Antonio. "We’re looking to do the most we can with the money we’re given–that’s the case in a good economy or a bad economy. And we found it was a reduced cost and better service, so it was a win-win."

Abilene Christian University

Google Blog

Hosted eMail from Microsoft Exchange Online

University of Texas at San Antonio

Dartmouth College

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