Exiting (the Expense of) Email

In the 1980’s email was an exciting new collaborative tool, mostly limited in its use to academic or research setting.  Since email was a relatively unique application, IT organizations in higher education had to design and manage their own email systems.  Over the years email has become a key communication tool for the campus community and can now be considered an institutional utility, as critical to the function of the campus as the water and power utilities.

Over time technologies tend to either die off or become a commodity. And after nearly 30 years email is now very much a commodity. While different institutions may use different underlying email technologies, the basic email service provided to the customer is remarkably similar.

As a service becomes more standardized or commoditized there are more effective and less expensive ways to offer that service. Provisioning and managing a commodity is very different from how you manage a customized service. Continuing to provide email as a customized service will cost you a premium; likely a premium your institution can no longer afford.

In the US, many institutions have abandoned their home-grown or home-managed systems. For several years providers such as Google and Microsoft have delivered offerings of their web-based email services to educational institutions at no cost and with no advertizing. This is now often called Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or moving the service to the “cloud”. But regardless of the label, the significant change is that you simply have someone else provide a service for you. No longer do you care about details such as the type of server and disk, you simple purchase (or receive for free) a service that meets your needs.

The debate about whether or not an external organization can provide the required email services for the institution occurred several years ago in the US, with hundreds of institutions concluding that the service level, features and security was better using Microsoft or Google. Their experiences have shown that these providers of free email can supply robust, easy-to-use and highly functional email offerings to both large and small campuses.

In Canada very few organizations took advantage of these free “cloud” email services due to concerns that the US Patriot Act would allow the email security and privacy to be compromised. Lakehead University was one of the early Canadian adopters of Google email and this past summer an arbitrator ruled (http://bit.ly/64whI8) that the university had the right to switch to the Google email, despite faculty concerns about privacy.  Other Canadian universities, including the University of Alberta (http://bit.ly/73kxhT), are currently contemplating the move to Google for campus email.

Before moving jumping up to place your call to Google or Microsoft there are three main areas that need to be explored in the context of your institution:

Cost      What is the annual cost of your current email services? What is the cost of migration? Perhaps you have a solid IT Service Costing model that will allow you to measure the total annual expenditure on email, but if you don’t have this detail of financial data available you should be able to do some reasonable back-of-the-envelope estimates of the operating and capital costs. Alternatively, you could use the market to tell you what an efficient large-scale provider will charge for the set of services – currently $50/year/user for Google Apps Premier and $5/month/user for Microsoft’s Exchange On-Line. But whatever figure you arrive at for the cost of your current in-house email services, it is almost certainly higher than the $0/year cost charged by Google or Microsoft for educational customers!

Functionality   Do the “cloud” email services meet your institutional needs? Likely the current Google and Microsoft offerings meet the basic email, mailing lists and calendaring needs of the campus. In fact, in many cases, the functionality provided by these vendors will exceed what can be offered on-campus. In particular, not many institutions currently provide the massive 7GB of email storage offered by Google. But when considering the offered functionality, it is important to think about email as part of a larger set of collaborative tools and therefore, when making email directional decisions, you should also considering your directions for services such as Instant Messaging (IM), web conferencing and file sharing. Many of the “cloud” email vendors have collaborative tool offerings too.  Also, it may be helpful to think about segmentation of these services as not all groups on campus necessarily need the same set of email or collaborative services.

Security  Does your institutional email need to be stored on campus servers or stay within Canada? This seems to be the most contentious issue in moving email to the cloud. There tends to be some comfort in knowing that your email servers reside somewhere on-campus. But is that really providing better security and privacy? This is the area where you need to spend some time and effort in doing a risk assessment and a Privacy Impact Assessment. IT Leaders need to open a conversation with their Privacy Office and/or legal counsel.

Your institution’s answers to the above will allow you to chart the best course of action. But be warned, moving to a new email system is a significant change to a critical system and the project needs to be properly planned, managed and communicated. As well, as you move to a cloud provider for a key service such as email, you should review your IT Service Management approaches. It is quite likely that your current Help Desk, Problem Management and Change Management processes will need to be revised to work in the new environment.

Cloud computing for email and other services isn’t something an IT Leader can ignore. If the IT Leadership at your campus does not work on setting the institutional direction, given the current fiscal environment you can be sure that someone on the financial side of the organization will advocate moving to $0 cost email.

And one final caution. The movement of services to the cloud is accompanied by a strong wind of change. A wind of change that goes well beyond the technical aspects of a specific service. The winds might even be gale-force in service management and governance aspects of IT. Be prepared!

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    • Dan Overes
    • January 29th, 2010

    This is very timely as several of us were just having an “over coffee” conversation about electronic communications, especially as it relates to today’s students.

    More and more today’s students have moved on from email — whether it be instant messaging, text messages, or social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Today’s academic institution really needs to focus less and less on email for students and more about how to leverage those new services. Email is still a very valuable tool for the business side of things, but for the typical student (who has probably had their own email account since he/she could walk) it seems to be more of a throwback technology than cutting edge.

    I see if becoming an even bigger question than “Should our email system be in-house or cloud-based?” I suspect before long most institutions will start asking “Do we need to provide any form of student email?”

    • esche
    • February 1st, 2010

    I agree that email is “old technology” and most students not only have multiple email accounts when they arrive, but also no longer use email as their primary communication tool. No student will select their college or university based on what email service is being provided. So why are institutions spending money on providing a service that isn’t valued by the customer?

    I find it interesting that email communication isn’t being replaced by a single new tool, but rather a number of services — IM, facebook, twitter, text messaging, and many other new and exciting social media. And at the same time we have a continued transition from paper-based communications to a variety of electronic means.

    So in addition to having IT shops exiting some of their perceived “core” services, I think that with these changes is a need for an improved campus directory services that enables students and faculty to use whatever (externally provided) service they need to do their work. I’m not sure if the directory will be needed to be provided locally or whether the “cloud” will be able to step up to that need too.

    Exciting times ahead!

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