300 students selected to find WebMail alternative

Technology administrators are now looking to a randomly selected group of 300 students to decide if a private company will manage the e-mail of more than 44,000 USF students.

The move could send WebMail to the recycling bin as early as next fall.

While Academic Computing staffers were stockpiling hardware over the past year to keep the system running normally, they were also browsing the market for a private company with a wallet thick enough to manage and develop USF’s student e-mail system for free.

Microsoft’s Windows Live at Edu and Google Apps for Education, the two services under consideration, offer at least 40 times as much storage space as WebMail and a host of applications like instant messaging, personal blogs and shared calendars – at no cost to students or the University.

“If we can outsource (e-mail) to someone who can provide better services and support, then why wouldn’t we do that?” Chief Technology Officer Michael Pearce said. “Then we would focus our resources on things that help to make USF more unique and creative and innovative.”

The test group filled out a survey indicating their e-mail preferences and will try out both Google Apps for Education and Windows Live at Edu for several weeks. During the same period, the group will have two chances to speak with representatives from either company.

If the test group approves one of the services, Academic Computing will allow students to use it in the upcoming semester but will keep running WebMail as the default, Pearce said.

At the beginning of the 2008-09 academic year, the student body should be using the new service.

The participants responded to an advertisement Pearce placed on the WebMail home page. It took little time for WebMail users to fill up all the spots open for the trial, he said.

“We got the 300 in less than 24 hours,” he said.

The 300 were asked to rate features commonly offered by e-mail providers, and were given new e-mail addresses to test both Google Apps and Windows Live at the same time, Pierce said.

The trial period will tentatively expire Dec. 31.

Microsoft will pitch its service to participants in an online conference at the end of the month, opening the floor to student questions and concerns, Pearce said. Google will hold a similar session, but the date is yet to be confirmed.

The slow load times and unpredictability of WebMail have irked students and faculty and kept administrators busy over the past couple years.

In December 2005 and November 2006, hardware errors caused the system to crash completely, both times erasing every student e-mail account and some stored data. As a result, system technicians had to rebuild the entire database from scratch twice in less than a year.

A Dell server bought to fix the system at the end of 2006 was instead replaced with the old servers after it caused five crashes in five days.

Two more disruptive system crashes followed in January and February of this year.

Though Academic Computing has managed to keep the system running since then, Pearce told the Oracle in September that the University was considering outsourcing its e-mail servers to multi-billion dollar companies Google and Microsoft.

Like a lot of other universities, USF doesn’t have the resources to develop an e-mail system that can efficiently serve 100,000 users while also offering abundant storage space and cutting-edge features, Pearce said.

“We want to leverage expertise that others have,” Pearce said. “(Google and Microsoft) have a higher degree of storage – they have higher capabilities for the mail accounts. We could get there but it’s a fairly expensive proposition.”

Although Pearce couldn’t specify the amount the University could save, Arizona State University, which adopted Gmail in October 2006, saved $500,000 in its first year that would have been spent on their EMMA e-mail system, said Kari Barlow, Assistant Vice President of ASU’s University Technology Office.

Academic Computing will still have to maintain some of its existing hardware even if the University does adopt one of the two services. Administrators will still have to forward messages from local users to the servers of Microsoft or Google.

After the severe crash last year thaterased every student e-mail account, Academic Computing has done its best to support an e-mail system straining under record levels of usage, and administrators in Academic Computing have finally gotten the message, officials said.

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