Outsourcing WebMail at USF

After years of making fixes to an e-mail system overtaxed by dramatic increases in usage, University technology officials are considering outsourcing the management of more than 100,000 University e-mail accounts to Microsoft or Google.

The potential switch to Google Apps for Education or Microsoft’s Windows Live at Edu would likely save the University money, allow for a 40-fold increase in account storage space and offer features far beyond USF’s technological capacity, University technology officials said.

“I think it’s really the best solution for the University because it gives students more opportunities to collaborate with other students,” said Eric Pierce, Senior Systems Administrator with Academic Computing. “it gives a lot more features than we could offer and it does it for a real affordable price.”

If USF makes the move it will join other large state universities who have turned to megacompanies like Google and Microsoft to handle their ballooning volume of e-mail.

In September alone, more than 31 million e-mails zipped through the wires and circuits of USF’s servers.

Google and Microsoft would offer the e-mail service to USF for free and sell no advertisements to the Web pages used in the online interface for students, but those who opt to keep their accounts once they graduate would become fair game for advertisements in their interface, joining the millions of other users who generate ad revenue for the companies.

Google and Microsoft hope people used to the features of the University e-mail service will stay with the technology companies as long as possible, Pierce said. Even if users don’t purchase additional services, the company will continue to profit by selling ad space.

“They’re trying to get customers for life, as many people using their service as they can,” Pierce said.

To assist in the decision, Academic Computing has asked Student Government to organize an advisory committee to find out what the student body wants in an e-mail system.

The committee, which will be composed of students and SG members, will consider the decision to outsource, and will compare the features offered by Microsoft and Google with USF’s system, said Senate President Nathan Davison.

Besides its being free, the vastness of the two companies’ resources and the speed at which they develop and maintain new features and applications was attractive to USF, Pierce said.

“In order to get the feature set that Microsoft and Google have (with USF WebMail) would be expensive, if it would even be possible,” Pierce said. “(Outsourcing) saves our time and everybody’s time in the department as far as development work is concerned, generating features and making sure everything is stable and reliable.”

For example, while USF offers its student users roughly 52 megabytes of storage, Google offers 2000.

To match that level of storage, USF would have to buy hardware to save 400 terabytes of information – a terabyte is 1,000,000 megabytes – half to provide the storage for USF’s 100,000 e-mail accounts, and half to back them up in case of system failure.

“So you’re easily talking millions of dollars of equipment to get to that level of storage,” Pierce said.

But Academic Computing would still have to maintain a smaller system of its own to relay messages sent by local users to the servers of the larger company, instead of having to back up and store every message, Pierce said.

The remaining hardware would be used to pad other networks that need more backup storage space, Associate Director in Systems in Academic Computing Alex Campoe said.

Arizona State University, whose EMMA e-mail system once served 65,000 students with 60 megabytes of storage space and few extra features not unlike USF’S, decided to implement Google and launched it 10 days later, said Kari Barlow, assistant vice president of ASU’s University Technology Office.

“(Gmail) has been great. It’s been a good opportunity for students to have exposure to those types of technology that support their ASU experience,” Barlow said.

After replacing its e-mail system with Google Apps in October of 2006, ASU quickly followed with Google Dots and Spreadsheets in March and used Google’s Personal Start-Up Page for its main portal starting in July.

The move to Google has freed up about $500,000 a year at ASU to spend on other projects in technology, Barlow said.

Dan Catlin can be reached at (813) 974-6299 or oraclecatlin@gmail.com.