January 20, 2010

No reason to change from Zimbra

As student bodies grow and the costs of providing services increase, many colleges and universities across the country have shifted student email accounts to Gmail or Windows Live. Knox, however, stands by its use of the Zimbra email platform.

“I’m very happy with the product itself,” said Steve Hall, associate director of Knox’s Computer Center. “It’s very solid. Yahoo! (which owns Zimbra) is very responsive to its user community and continues to release new features.”

Switching to Gmail or Windows Live could potentially create a variety of issues that using Zimbra avoids, including an inability to quickly troubleshoot and fix problems. Right now, if someone accidentally deletes an important email, the issue can be easily resolved.

“You can call me […] and within minutes, I can log onto the server and resolve problems,” explained Hall. “[With Gmail], who do we call, and can we expect problems to be dealt with in a timely fashion amongst millions of users?”

Using an outside provider also raises the issue of privacy. Google, for example, has access to all the emails on its services. While legal and contractual agreements technically prevent Google from mining this data, the ability to do so still exists.

The sheer massiveness of an outside provider can clearly lead to massive consequences. Computer Center director Steve Jones recalls what happened several years ago when a fiber optic cable was accidentally cut, making it so outside Internet sites could not be accessed from the Knox campus. Incidentally, this was also the day that then-Senator Barack Obama was at Knox to give the 2005 commencement address.

“[Obama’s speechwriter] had saved the speech in her Yahoo! account, intending to print it out on campus,” Jones said. “But we couldn’t access her account.”

Thankfully, the speech was printed from a staff member’s home and made it to the commencement ceremony on time. The “Barack Obama issue,” however, is illustrative of what could happen if the school switched to Gmail or Windows Live and a cable was cut, disrupting access to student email accounts. Using an in-house provider like Zimbra allows Knox to circumvent the problem.

Despite the drawbacks of Gmail and Windows Live, they are becoming more and more popular at large universities. This, said Hall, is the key.

“[The universities] can foist the problems of 40,000 people onto Google,” he explained.

The major attraction of Gmail and Windows Live, however, is their cost or lack thereof. Whereas Google provides student email for free, Zimbra can cost Knox upwards of $20,000 a year between licenses, support, and other needs.

“It is a substantial cost, but [Zimbra] is a key to our institution,” said Jones.

As another way to avoid costs, some universities have decided to simply use a student’s personal email address. This can cause logistical nightmares, said Jones.

“With Zimbra, you can at least guess at someone’s email address, but with personal emails, good luck,” he said.

Overall, the Computer Center sees the pros of Zimbra outweighing the cons and intends to stick with it for the foreseeable future.

“This is our third year on Zimbra, and there is no huge reason to change what we’re doing,” Hall affirmed.

Anna Meier

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