The Free E-Mail Express: Prime Features, Low Risk

Free! Robust e-mail platform that offers six gigabytes of storage space, familiar Web-based interface, integrated chat and calendar software, superior spam blocking and virus protection, no data backup necessary, and no hardware or software upgrades. All of this is yours for free when you partner with Google or Microsoft. Does this seem too good to be true? Some colleges and universities think so, but they are still jumping on the e-mail outsourcing bandwagon to keep pace with the demands of their young, tech-savvy consumers, and the institutions are saving big money and even bigger storage space on their servers.

Indiana University (IU) has partnered with Microsoft and Google to provide its students and alumni with the flexibility to choose the platform that works for them. Indiana’s alumni association was the first to ink a deal with Microsoft in 2006 to provide free e-networking services. The partnership is still going strong and includes e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, and classifieds. Then last spring, IU started the process of switching its more than 110,000 undergraduate and graduate students from its UNIX system to the Web-mail platform that they use at home. The university went live in March, and it has an ambitious marketing plan to entice more students to sign onto Microsoft’s Exchange Labs or Google’s Gmail by the fall.

The staff and faculty use Microsoft’s Exchange Server product internally, which the University pays for and includes a calendar that can be synched with Exchange Labs. There is no plan at this time to switch to the free Exchange Labs platform. The University’s legal team recommended that IU’s staff and faculty not use an external system in order to ensure that the institution complies with student-data privacy policies.

Alan Walsh, manager of identity management systems at Indiana University, said the savings in hardware and operational costs can’t be beat. Since IU will not need to purchase more servers or pay for the service (Microsoft’s and Google’s e-mail platforms are free), the IT department has more budget flexibility. “This partnership is going to free up resources for us; staff resources that are supporting our internal e-mail service can now be reallocated,” Walsh observed. IU estimates that it will save $500,000 annually in operational and equipment expenses by outsourcing student e-mail. Until now, the technology department spent $700,000 annually supporting their internal Web-mail service and features.

Bundled Services Are All the Rage
The draw for students, said Walsh, is not just e-mail, but rather the bundle of complimentary platforms that come with Exchange Labs or Gmail. “We can now offer more services without spending more resources to get them, such as instant messaging, calendars, blogs, and Web spaces. As these services grow, we can offer them to our students at zero cost to us.”

Students get — and expect — lots of storage space. Google mail provides six gigabytes of storage and Microsoft’s Exchange Labs provides five gigabytes. And the federal student privacy pieces are in place. Walsh is confident Microsoft and Google will protect the privacy of IU’s students; the University’s security analysts and legal counsel hammered out the privacy details with the companies and have been assured that personal information will be protected.

So far Walsh is satisfied with the storage space, privacy protection, and the back-office support Microsoft and Google provide for both the alumni association and current students. “Once things are set up, it pretty much rolls, and you don’t have to spend time tweaking it,” he said.

Colleges Are Signing Up in Droves
As of May, Microsoft had signed up 2,000 universities and colleges for its program with 2,000 more piloting it, according to Bruce Gabrielle, senior product manager, Microsoft’s [email protected] program. Customers can choose Hotmail or Exchange Labs inbox offerings, both of which are co-branded with the university. [email protected] works with the mobile devices students currently use, and integrates with the university’s infrastructure. Colleges must keep up with students’ communication habits, and administrators are finding that their home-grown e-mail systems do not provide the virtually unlimited storage space, familiar interfaces, real-time chats, or superior spam-blocking capabilities that the commercial industry offers.

Microsoft has conducted research on privacy concerns such as trolling — scanning the content of e-mail conversations — and found that students can tolerate scanning for spam filtering or scanning their inboxes to search for e-mail messages, but they dislike systems that can decipher what they are reading or push advertisements based on their text. The company scans for pornographic words or text patterns that trigger phishing attacks, but, “we don’t censor things,” said Gabrielle.

Microsoft is also adamant about protecting intellectual property rights; students own all their content and the software giant does not have rights to maintain the data that students generate.

Gabrielle says Internet spam is up 40 percent over last year, but is confident Microsoft has the resources to combat the problem. “Spam is down 80 percent in the Hotmail inbox over the past year. We build proprietary software to combat the spam. We stop 95 percent of all e-mail before it reaches the inbox, stopping most of the spam, viruses, or phishing activity,” he said.

Jeff Pestun, associate director of IT at Hope College in Holland, MI, knows all too well how invasive spam is. Hope College was being inundated by spam four years ago, and its internal systems weren’t keeping up. So in 2005, Pestun outsourced spam and virus filtering to Symantec, a security software and service company. “This was the first step toward outsourcing our e-mail client. It worked well and it gave us some comfort level [to outsource e-mail].” Hope College is now a Google Apps for Education customer — all student, faculty, and staff e-mail accounts go directly through Google’s servers.

Pestun is confident about the security Google offers. “We can’t even pretend to approach their security level. Our e-mails are more secure today than a year ago because we went with Google. Before that, our team had to keep up with the numerous updates to our e-mail servers, along with those for institution-specific services like our network and learning management system.”

Another benefit, he adds, is that Google gives the college sustainability. “We’re letting someone who handles e-mail solutions handle our e-mail system. There are no more capacity installation issues, new features to add, or need for more storage space.” Pestun estimated that they would spend between $300,000 to $500,000 to duplicate what they get from Google. Google provides more than six gigabytes of storage space for each of Hope College’s 4,500 users.

By signing on, the College incurs no additional costs. The IT staff continues to be in the business of e-mail support, but now it has more time to focus on its systems specific to the institution. “E-mail is vital to the operation of the institution, but it’s not vital that we provide it internally. It’s like electricity; we use it everyday, but we don’t have to shovel the coal into the fire,” said Pestun.

Keeping It Local

Not all colleges are jumping on board with the largest commercial e-mail providers. Middlesex County College in Edison, NJ, first started outsourcing its e-mail in 2001 to a local provider and remains with them today. Middlesex didn’t have the hardware or software in the early 2000s to offer e-mail to students without making a hefty investment. Instead, they hired Timecruiser, a Fairfield, NJ-based enterprise software business, and launched the company’s signature e-mail service, CampusCruiser.

Timecruiser was attractive because it offered an e-mail system that worked in conjunction with the college’s enterprise resource planning system. The initial model was free, but the service soon became fee-based as more student-service platforms were added. The costs are reasonable for the product Middlesex is getting. “The system has turned out to be a full-service student portal. They can register for classes and find their grades, and faculty can hold classes online, or e-mail the entire class at one click,” said Neil Sachnoff, executive director of Information Technology.

Middlesex hasn’t switched to Google and Microsoft because the platforms do not offer a single sign-on for access to such services as posting grades or reserving meeting rooms, said Sachnoff. However, he has begun discussions with the vendor about the future of CampusCruiser and how it can compete with products like Exchange Labs and Gmail. “The vice presidents at Middlesex are now questioning the value at the cost point we are at with CampusCruiser. But remember, the competition doesn’t offer full-service student portals. We have a lot invested in the platform since we have been using it for seven years,” said Sachnoff, adding that the college “spent just shy of six figures” in 2007 for CampusCruiser.

A robust e-mail service is the impetus in the decision for many colleges and universities to outsource. An added feature, like calendars that sync data with portable devices such as BlackBerry devices, is often icing on the cake. The price can’t be beat either; Microsoft and Google offer these services at no charge, with the expectation that users are forming long-term habits by using their products. So far the relationship appears to be working as more and more colleges and universities rush to sign up.

Rhonda Morin is a writer based in Oregon. She's the former editor of a New England college publication, Thomas Magazine, and an associate editor for a national computer trade publication. Rhonda can be contacted at 503/206-4298 or [email protected]