UWindsor gets head in the cloud

Google Gmail

University switches student webmail to Google Apps suite

Natasha Marar

The University of Windsor is joining a slew of Canadian institutions in a move that replaces its outdated student e-mail system with Google Gmail accounts.

After two years of planning, IT Services has signed a five-year contract to use Google Apps for Education, a series of web-based collaboration services known as cloud-computing. The services, offered to the university at no charge, includes an unlimited amount of 25 gigabyte Gmail accounts for students and access to apps like Google Docs, Drive, Calendar, Talk and Contacts.

Active students will receive e-mails starting this week with instructions to migrate their e-mail accounts to the new system, branded as UWinGmail. Students who are on leave from the university or have graduated in the last year will also be upgraded. The plan is to move all 29,000 active student accounts by October.

“The Google offering is more than Gmail … Not only are students getting more services, they’re often already familiar with it before they get to the university,” said Kevin Macnaughton, network security administrator for IT Services and the UWinGmail project manager. “We’re still administering the accounts, but they provide the software and servers. It’s a kind of hybrid approach.”

University e-mail accounts are currently stored locally using CommuniGate Pro, which only provides students with 100 megabytes of online mail storage. The software is licensed for around $10,000 year, and the servers cost $5,000 to replace ever three years.

“We sort of came to a crisis point because we couldn’t continue offering 100 megabyte (student) mailboxes. From the user perspective … 100 megabytes doesn’t cut it,” said Macnaughton, adding that the current Webmail1 interface is dated.

“From an administration side, managing the disk (storage) space is a bit of a nightmare,” he said. “[And] we only had a limited amount of licenses, which means when people graduated we had to terminate their accounts.”

I find the current interface pretty awful. I export all my e-mails to Gmail anyways. So I’m for it.
Hughcowley, UWindsor graduate student

Macnaughton said IT Services isn’t saving money by switching to Google Apps per say because the server space currently used for student accounts will just be used to expand storage for faculty and staff e-mails currently using IBM Lotus Notes.

“I imagine there will be some faculty that will request Google accounts in between for various purposes, but there is not yet a project to move staff accounts to Google.”

Macnaughton said the university chose Google Apps over other services, such as Microsoft 365, because “Google’s technology looked like it would integrate more easily with things we already have like CLEW and the (myUWindsor) portal.”

“Is it possible for us to allow [assignments] to be submitted in the native Google Docs format through CLEW? It may be possible in CLEW, the document editor is actually replaced with the Google Docs editor. So that it’s completely seamless, but we haven’t evaluated that yet.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” said Hugh Cowley, a UWindsor graduate student about UWinGmail. “But frankly, I find the current interface pretty awful. I export all my e-mails to my Gmail account anyways. So I’m for it.”

UWindsor is just one of many Canadian institutions outsourcing its e-mail services to third party companies like Google and Microsoft.

In 2006, Lakehead University became the first educational institution in Canada to replace its legacy e-mail system with Gmail. It started with the migration of 38,000 accounts, which to date, has increased to approximately 65,000 active e-mails, said Terry Young, manager, Technology Services Centre at Lakehead University. Alumni there are also provided with an e-mail account for life.

“Google has grown, and we’ve grown with them.”

Young cited similar reasons as Macnaughton for moving to Google, such as the cost of maintaining the university’s servers. He estimates that Lakehead saves between $200,000 and $250,000 per year.

“The only problem is is that the mail isn’t necessary backed up,” he said. “We really don’t have any control over it and so we can’t provide any guarantees (that mail won’t be lost).”

Lakehead also uses an enterprise resource planning tool; a program that automates the creation of new e-mail accounts when students are admitted to the university.

Young said Lakehead regularly fields calls from other universities that are interested in using Google Apps for Education.

Other Canadian post-secondary institutions using Google Apps include Nipissing and Wilfrid Laurier universities since 2010, Ontario College of Art and Design and University of Alberta since 2011, and McMaster, Mount Royal and Memorial universities, which are switching this year.

Doug Pratt, a fourth-year chemistry student from Memorial University said he’s enjoying the e-mail upgrade at his school.

“The old system, the interface wasn’t that good. Moving to Gmail, it’s something everyone is used to. It is much easier,” Pratt said, adding that the old webmail only provided 200 megabytes of inbox space.

Adoption of Google Apps in Alberta is also steadily rising. Besides the University of Alberta and Mount Royal University, this year, the City of Edmonton will become the first Canadian municipality to move its employees to the Google cloud. And all 90,000 students and teachers in the Edmonton Public Schools board have been using Google Apps for Education since 2010.

Not everyone is making the move to Google, however. While the University of Toronto has been using Google Apps for its alumni e-mail accounts since 2008, it decided last year to move its student and faculty accounts to Microsoft’s 365 system. Other universities that have outsourced their e-mail to Microsoft’s free service include Dalhousie University and the University of British Columbia. Microsoft currently services around 11 million educational users as opposed to Google Apps’ 40 million customers.

Despite the popularity of the Google and Microsoft alternatives for post-secondary e-mail management, concerns have risen over security of intellectual property, as users’ data often resides in servers located outside Canada.

The University of Toronto, in particular, has conducted an extensive privacy impact assessment, which has cleared many worries for Canadian educators curious about using Google Apps.

“We did a privacy impact assessment as part of the process … to see if there were potential problems … whether there was a risk to intellectual property,” explained Macnaughton. “That was cleared by the university lawyer. The contract specifies that too. And there’s no advertising (in e-mail accounts), there’s no profiling or data mining. Ownership of the data resides with the university and the students.”

Macnaughton did warn, however, that information about Google searches and Youtube usage conducted by students while logged into their UWinGmail account is collected by the company. The same is true for other registered Google users.

Regarding Google’s intentions to market its services to educational users, Macnaughton said. “The primary driver for them is to get people on their platforms. Once you get them into the building, then they’ll start to use other services.”

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