Wednesday, 25 February 2009

webmail and the outsourcing dilemma ...

We all know that email has come to mean webmail as far as students (and possibly some others) are concerned. The convenience of being able to access email from any computing device anywhere with a nice interface far outweighs occasional slowness and browser incompatibilities. (Luddites might say the same is true of pine in an ssh session, but the Igeneration doesn't do I,C,^T,^X,y).

So webmail is a dominant meme, which leaves universities struggling to provide a decent webmail service. And universities are an interesting option as they usually have several tens of thousands of accounts, and a relatively high number of concurrent mail sessions.

Their other constraint is that everyone has a hotmail, a Gmail or a Yahoo account these days, and it's against these services that their offerings will be measured. Their web application has got to scale and look good, and preferably provide calendar/diary services, just like the free guys.

This constraint kills venerable web based mail only solutions such as squirrelmail, which is essentially an imap client written in php - no calendar integration and a design not optimal for handling large numbers of concurrent sessions.

So what to do? Well the choice comes down to outsourcing, of whom the most recent example is Adelaide , or maintain the in house service. Outsourcing is perhaps easier for student email than for staff, as there is less risk of corporate data being compromised, and less need to restore and find missing messages - basically less need for legal discovery and the like. Restricting in house provisioning to staff reduces the scale of the problem and makes a whole range of rich messaging solutions sustainable.

As an aside, it could be argued that universities could simply ask students to have an email account as Boston College has done. This has also been the de facto mode of operation for a number of public universities in France, Spain and Italy where the large numbers of students has defeated the provision of robust email services and students have, to a greater or lesser extent, defected to the 'free' webmail services.

Of course, no university really wants to be first to stop providing email services for students - too much risk of ridicule. So we're left with the outsourcing/in house dilemma.

Outsourcing is basically just a variant on telling students to go and use Google, Hotmail, or whatever, with perhaps a bit more account provisioning neatness and integration with some in house course scheduling services.

But in house provision. It's expensive in terms of server and staff resources, and there's not that many solutions out there. Well, there's two common solutions. Zimbra, as used by Stanford among others, and there's the Sun Java Communications server. Both provide an outlook style web client and imap services. Both scale relatively well. Both are relatively cheap to education. Both need an expensive infrastructure in terms of servers and storage to support it. And both are subject to students defecting to use the free web mail systems . And we need to think about security and the leakage of corporate data.

Separating staff and student email might help reduce the leakage of data by keeping all the corporate stuff in one place. Certainly having the stuff in one place makes it easier to implement security measures, deal with legal discovery, and generally makes the legal framework easier.

And if you do that there's a temptation to enusre that the institution's business processes run well be expending more effort on the corporate system at the expense of the student system. Which leads to students voting with their feet, abandoning it, and progressively making the case for outsourcing stronger and stronger. And possibly, departments or facultues doing their own thing as staff want to be able to communicate easily with their tutor groups, and incidentally causing a raft of management problems (jont course students for one) and differnetial provision

So where does this leave us?

  • Outsourcing staff/corporate email is messy, if only for a whole lot of reasons in the legal space
  • The scaling problems usually apply to student email - there's more of them than staff
  • Separating staff and student email makes it easier to outsource student email
  • Outsourcing student email can be rationalised as a dollars and cents decision
  • Not outsourcing can result in mass defection to the free providers if the service isn't perceived to be as good as the free guys
  • Poor provision can result in a mass of alternate smaller scale systems which can buy a raft of other problems

All in all, there seems to be no one good answer, other than to say outsourcing staff email may be more problematic than one might hope ...

1 comment:

dgm said...

see also for examples of user perception of campus email