November 2, 2011

Senate proposes switch to Gmail

It is time to venture into the cloud and switch Knox’s email servers to Gmail, according to the proponents of a proposal to leave the Zimbra email platform behind.

Knox implemented Zimbra, a locally hosted email service, three years ago after the previous system, IMail, showed that it did not have the capacity to handle the needs of the college.

Steve Jones, Senior Associate Director of Administrative Systems, recalls the issue focusing around the performance of IMail.

“The system we had went into a very rapid decent, I guess you could call it. There’s a point at which you start nearing capacity in performance. Performance may have been going down as volume went up, then suddenly went pop and sort of fell off the edge. So we hit Zimbra because of who owned it, and its reputation was good, we went with that one,” Jones said.

Interim Student Senate Treasurer Maxwell Galloway-Carson believes that it is time for another change. In the Student Life Committee’s meeting Tuesday, Nov. 2, Galloway-Carson cited the functionality of Gmail over Zimbra and student familiarity with the Google email system as motivation factors for the switch.

“There was pretty strong support in Senate about that, particularly, I think, because most people’s secondary email is Gmail. We’re all very familiar with it, and we would like institutional access to all of the apps in the Google suite,” Galloway-Carson said.

When asked about whether he believes that the proposition of switching email systems should originate from Senate, as opposed to the decision stemming from the technology department, Steve Hall, Director of Information Technology Services, said that the department must work with students in order to be successful.

“I think ultimately the technology department needs to make an informed decision. That’s what it is, and certainly receiving the input and the desires of the student body is part of making an informed decision … I think the decision has to reside in here, but ultimately there are a number of different components to this,” Hall said.

Hall, Jones and Galloway-Carson all take the cost of Zimbra into account when considering a switch to Gmail, a free service.

“I went to the Zimbra website and found out that it is actually quite expensive, compared to Google which would be absolutely no charge at all. What I found out is that the price per student for Zimbra is about $70 per year, so it’s kind of alarming to me that we’re paying more for a product that we don’t really like,” Galloway-Carson said.

Hall points out the hidden costs of switching systems, beyond the evident cost of Zimbra’s software versus that of Google.

“There’s very little by-hand data entry [with Zimbra] which is a long and laborious process in getting accounts set up and configured,” Hall said. “That type of thing would have to be duplicated in order to work with Live or Google. From a labor point of view, we couldn’t take on an additional thousand hours of effort out of this department to do something with Google, for something we accomplish with zero man hours today.”

He continued, “That wouldn’t come out in the cost analysis of what does it cost here contractually and what it costs with Google, but it would mean that we would need another half-time person here, and there’s a cost associated with that, so all of those types of things have to get rolled up into this.”

Jones reiterated the positive aspect of paying for a service.

“Some of the other things are, what’s the obligation of Zimbra to Knox? Well, basically they provide the software, they provide a certain level of service … You come to us and say, ‘Gee, I just deleted my honors project inadvertently last month. Can you recover it? Because I emailed it to myself and then deleted it.’ We’ve got certain things we can do to recover things. I don’t know what the deal is with Google,” Jones said.

“Now with Google, in theory, we’re using a free service,” Jones said. “Nothing is free … The question is … where’s the money? Why is it free? Is it because they’re really charitable and like giving this away to universities? What’s underlying this? That’s where you get to the questions of privacy, that’s where you get to the questions of support.”

Jones summed up his argument saying, “The key thing is that it’s not a simple decision.”

Hall intends to renew the license for Zimbra until there is a better understanding of what the transition would entail.

“We’re going to renew sometime in the early spring. We’re going to renew because we aren’t going to get to Google or Live by March,” Hall said. “But I’ve got a list of long lead items that we’re going to look at, and hosted services is one of them. My plan is that we’re going to renew this year for one year, and take a pilot test to seriously consider a new system.”

Current students are not opposed to the idea of switching to Gmail, but generally find that Zimbra satisfies their communication needs.

“I have a Gmail account now, so it would be convenient, but Zimbra is adequate for what we use it for,” freshman Luke Taft said.

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