I’m lucky enough to work in an academic environment, which means I get to work with (and for) lots of really smart people. They ask tough questions and don’t hesitate to call BS when they get a BS answer. This has prompted a lot of new service offerings that don’t always follow status quo.
For example, 250MB of storage space for students on the departmental server used to be status quo. A while back, we increase that by 800%, and will continue to grow to meet the needs of our students.
Another example, a 2MB mailbox for plain text email, using a client such as pine (or elm, mail, mailx, etc.) used to be the status quo. Now, anyone can go online and get a 5GB+ mailbox, rich text email, and much, much more for free from places like Gmail, Yahoo!, and Hotmail. Email (let’s use a more general term like electronic collaboration) has become a commodity. Lots of people/companies do it better than I do for cheaper than I can, so why would I bother hosting my own server? That’s a good question!
In an academic environment, things typically change slowly (if at all). If you want to do something new, cool, and cutting edge, there are always rules and regulations to hold you back comply with (anyone ever dealt with IRB?). So I started the long tedious process of outsourcing email about a year ago. Within the past couple of years, electronic collaboration has become much more than email, and lots of companies are doing it (some are even doing it right). Even better, electronic collaboration has become a commodity, and with commodities come competition, even if the service is free! Did you notice how your old 2MB hotmail account jumped to 250MB seemingly overnight (you know, after Gmail debuted), and then again to 5GB? That’s commodity competition at work!
So, with all the new cool features (or if you’re providing the serivce: complexity and development time) and increased reliance (or supporting the service: customer intolerance for downtime) on electronic collaboration, why not let someone else do it? They can, in most cases, do it better, cheaper, faster, and offer those new features that I can’t (or am not willing to) roll out on my own email server.
The next question is “Who does it best?” Well, you have to define “best”, or rather, you have to define your requirements. The following lists detail my hard and soft requirements for an electronic collaboration solution.
- Shared folders that contain items listed above
- Mobile sync
- Web browser accessible
- Easy to use
- OS independent
- Offline capability
- Document collaboration
- Text docs
- LOTS of space
- Email filters/rules
- Free (or close to it)
For my money, no one (currently) does electronic collaboration better than Google. Google Apps for Education meets all the hard AND soft requirements. It also provides video conferencing, fast searching, and is really, REALLY easy to use. BUT (yeah, you knew it was coming), here’s why I can’t use them in my department:
- Their support is email-only
- I have never been able to talk to anyone other than a salesperson regarding the purchase or negotiating Terms of Service.
- Data can be stored anywhere in the world, which doesn’t give the lawyers warm fuzzies (and may actually be against the law in my particular situation).
- Google doesn’t actively recruit Aggies.
Microsoft’s Live@Edu comes in a close second for the following reasons. Items that are struck through have been resolved in more recent versions of Live@Edu.
- Web browser accessible – well, not ALL web browsers. IE, Firefox, and Safari are the only 3 supported. Yeah, that’s the majority, but I like Google Chrome. I also know people who use Opera, Konqueror, and others.
- OS independent – again, if your OS runs (and you are willing to use) IE, Firefox, or Safari, you’re ok.
- Document collaboration – This is HUGE! To share and collaborate on documents, you MUST have Microsoft Office installed. You can share lists and text docs online, but to do anything fancy/creative, you must have Microsoft Office. That was a deal breaker for me. I can’t go telling Dr. Linux Evangelist that they need MS Office (not available for Linux) to use our new cool electronic collaboration suite. With the availability of Office 2010 beta, this service is actually better than Google’s offering.
- Assumes it is authoritative for your domain! If you set up Live@Edu for domain.edu and then try to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org (who still has an email account on the domain.edu email server), it’ll bounce. This was a little annoying. There are work-arounds, and they work. There’s a work-around for this, but it’s still annoying.
- MORE storage than Google!! 10GB for FREE, 25GB for <$20/year (academic pricing).
- They heavily recruit A&M graduates, especially Computer Science grads!
There’s a box down there that says “Leave a comment.” If you have a valid question or concern, I’ll do my best to get a satisfactory answer for you.
For even more details, view my presentation on this subject (slides may change at any time)
Matt Pierce said:
Aaron, what about Novell’s GroupWise as a solution? For us at the same Higher Edu, we pay $10 per FTE for the Novell Suite. This includes licensing for SLES (Suse Linux Enterprise Servers) or Netware Servers (Unlimited amount), GroupWise, Identity Management, and Zenworks. Might be more, but I think I hit on teh majority of it. Included with our “subscription” if you will, we get GroupWise Mobile Server for free and Novell’s Instant Messenger for free. So, with that said, let’s discuss GroupWise. I already have it installed and in place and Server Admins to manage it and all other Netware/SLES/Windows Servers. With what the main campus IT group is now doimg with IronPort devices, this only enhances our email for users, besides using the MAIA mailguard system on our side, which might not be needed once teh IronPorts are up. I have a user base already tuned into using the GroupWise Client on their desktops and we also provide Web Access. Maintaining this server is preety simple. Do all the maintenance tasks that are recommended, and backup your server and you should be fine. We have little user complaints if at all. It is somewhat compatible with MS Outlook if you had users who wanted to use it if they had the MS Office Suite, but we do not do that because GroupWise provides a better client for their server product. We house our own Mobile Server, which came free with GW, for our users that have supported devices. This product is being re-done which will use the ActiveSync protocol and then support more devices, such as the iPhone. I am very happy with our solution, and would prefer not to go with the current campus IT solution. I guess it’s just dependent upon each group as to how they feel about email and the management of it. Some of us don’t feel the way you do, and like the fact that we have control over what we have and provide. Our users have or will have @xxx.edu alias’s setup on their accounts so that all email external to our domains looks as if it came form teh main campus alias that we are all given, which helps in various ways. Main Campus Directory lookup, centralized email so if t hey leave one area to go to another, the simply change the forwarding inside their main campus email to point to their new location.
I write this not to argue, as I can see your point, and it is a good one, for those like you who don’t want to manage this thing called Email. I simply wanted to point out the otherside of the fence for those of us who do like to do so. Thanks for your Blog and readers time. – Matt
Thanks for the feedback! I agree that GroupWise is definitely a viable email option. I am looking to offload email, so I obviously overlooked some really good host-your-own options that are available. Possibly the only reason I would be hesitant to adopt GroupWise in my environment is that don’t run any production services on Linux. Using GroupWise would increase the heterogeneousness of our servers, thus increasing administration overhead. That said, if you already have Linux expertise in-house, GroupWise could be an excellent option for email.
Matt Pierce said:
Aaron, Linux isn’t the only platform you can run GroupWise on. Of course you can still run even the newest GroupWise, Version 8, on Netware 6.5, but besides Netware and Linux, GroupWise does run on Windows. I’m not saying you need to go this route, I was just saying that for other groups, such as us, and several others on campus heavily vested in Netware products, it is best that we stay with what we have. For those of you looking to get it, maybe the Zimbra option would be best. I just don’t want to see CIS/Campus mandate that all departments across campus must be put on Zimbra hosted by CIS and no other choices are available. This would help to insue mass chaos amongst IT Admins as well as users/staff/faculty/cutomers. Just my two cents. Hope ya’ll get what you need. Thanks again for your input. – Matt
There I go showing my ignorance again. I agree that CIS mandating Zimbra would be a poor choice. I’m sure there are a few dean/VP offices that would revolt against that mandate if it every came around.