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Outsourced e-mail: Are UW, tech schools missing a chance to save taxpayer dollars?

Madison, Wis. - Are Wisconsin's universities and technical colleges wasting an opportunity to save millions in taxpayer dollars by not migrating to free outsourced e-mail service like Google's Gmail or Microsoft's Live@edu product?

Jim Kreilich
Former state technical college trustee Jim Kreilich thinks so, and he has found plenty of believers at institutions like the Arizona State University, St. Louis University, New York City's Hoffstra University, and others that have made the transition to free student e-mail solutions.

Kreilich, a computer technologist who spent 30 years in the super computing industry, is heartened to know that at least two institutions, UW-Parkside and Western Technical College in La Crosse, have migrated to the Microsoft solution. Another, Moraine Park Technical College, is transitioning to the Google application, and others - including the University of Wisconsin-Madison - are analyzing their options.

But the widespread savings and functional improvements that Kreilich believes are possible will not come until all 68,000 technical college students and the roughly 170,000 University of Wisconsin System students are transitioned to an outsourced service. He pointed to a recent study by Brian Voss, chief information officer of Louisiana State University, that estimates a $10 to $12 per user cost to provide institutional e-mail hosting to the average college student, including storage, servers, management, support, and other operational costs.

Using that metric, Wisconsin's tech schools and colleges potentially could save at least $2.4 million annually on student e-mail alone.
Kreilich began to raise the issue in 2006 after Arizona State announced that it was transitioning from its legacy system to Gmail. He understands that conversion costs and other factors would reduce those savings somewhat, but he contends there would be enough of a financial windfall to accommodate other academic needs.

Whereas businesses pay for a premium offering that is specifically designed for the enterprise, vendors offer a special package to educational institutions and non-profits free of charge. With the educational product, the only costs are associated are with set up and conversion - for the application interface and for writing scripts - and in return the vendors have an opportunity to showcase their e-mail products to future users.

“Taxpayers would not be shelling out as much, and that money could go for other things that are of higher value than some of this [e-mail] infrastructure,” Kreilich said. “If there is an opportunity for that money to be taken to a higher educational level, that's where it should go.”

Minding the storage

Kreilich, who served on the Chippewa Valley Technical College board, had been a Gmail user since it was first offered, by invitation only, when he was employed at Cray Research (since acquired by SGI). He used it as another repository to store e-mails and photographs. The admittedly frugal Kreilich is accustomed to working with small amounts of storage but with space becoming more valuable and with software and digital images growing fatter, Wisconsin schools should take advantage of the additional storage offered by the likes of Google and Microsoft, whose education applications now offers five gigabytes of storage.

“I had students indicate problems of storage,” he said. “On our campus [CVTC], the e-mail system is 10 megabytes total for all of your e-mail messages. That's your quota, which is fairly miniscule by today's standards.”

In addition to storage, the outsourced approach offers reduced maintenance expense, e-mail forwarding, instant messaging, calendaring, collaboration tools, and a lifelong address with a student domain on it, which is beneficial in staying connected with and tracking the moves of alumni.

“It should provide some ease to maintain the continuity of that [alumni] base and keep building on it,” Kreilich said.

State picture

At the moment, few Wisconsin colleges have adopted outsourced e-mail for students, but UW-Madison is in a due diligence phase. Moraine Park Technical College will implement Gmail in January, and Western Technical College and UW-Parkside already have implemented Live@edu.

Ann Marie Durso, chief information officer for UW-Parkside, has migrated 16,000 active students and more than one million e-mail communications to the Microsoft application. Durso said the Microsoft solution is much more reliable and feature-rich than Parkside's antiquated e-mail system , which was fragile and overtaxed. The university had made a minimal investment “to keep it limping along,” she said, and still had problems with reliability, responsiveness, and storage.

Parkside students now have two gigabytes of storage, many times more than the university could give them, plus messaging and calendaring and a better user interface. While Durso said the migration was not made on the basis of cost savings, there will be savings because the old e-mail system was more maintenance intensive.

In addition to e-mail storage, which will expand once Parkside completely retires its legacy system, students will have full access to the Microsoft office suite and use it as a collaboration environment at no cost to the institution.

The main conversion cost was just under $10,000 for a management information server, which Parkside is using for multiple purposes. Users are allowed to have Live@edu for life, which should help maintain an affiliation with students post graduation. Durso said Microsoft has hinted at extending the service to faculty and staff, which she would welcome.

Durso said Microsoft's environment is more secure than the university could provide internally.

“There were just a whole lot of wins,” Durso said.

Madison's due diligence

While Parkside's contract with Microsoft was reviewed by UW System legal in Madison so that any issues related to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA, which pertains to student records) would not be compromised, it is precisely those issues that UW-Madison CIO Ron Kraemer is focused on as the system's flagship university examines outsourced e-mail.

UW-Madison recently began its due diligence on outsourced e-mail for students and alumni, with Microsoft, Google, and Zimbra among the possible vendors.

Kraemer said the decision must be weighed with FERPA and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requirements in mind, plus the need for help desk and other services.

Since UW-Madison would still need to run much of its existing e-mail infrastructure to make the outsourced service work, Kraemer doubts there would be a huge cost savings. He said the university's existing infrastructure would be maintained for several reasons:

First, if a student wants an e-mail group that has all other students in a class or seminar or a student organization, the vendor infrastructure doesn't know anything about that, but the university and the records it keeps would allow it to make those connections.

Second, an existing system must be maintained for faculty and staff, and it's not clear what the cost savings would be to remove them from the university's e-mail infrastructure. UW-Madison believes it needs to maintain faculty and staff on existing infrastructure because of security and integrity of data.

Third, crisis communications requirements compel the university to maintain student data relevant to e-mail lists and e-mail text messaging.

“We want to be responsible in the amount of due diligence we do before we just jump to a different operation without understanding where and what that's really going to get us,” Kraemer said. “I can guarantee that every major university is looking at this. MIT, Stanford, and Cal Berkeley are looking at legal and cost issues, but they are taking the approach that we are.

"We are a bit risk averse when it comes to these things that really matter.”

Bruce Gabrielle, a senior product manager for Microsoft Live@edu, indicated the software giant can address all these concerns.

Regarding FERPA and HIPAA, he said Microsoft encrypts e-mail messages over the Internet and restricts server access to authorized personnel; only the student controls who sees his or her e-mail address. Gabrielle said the company also provides universities with help desk support, including 24 by 7 phone support for “critical issues,” plus online support.

Although most schools contractually prohibit vendors from selling advertising via student e-mail accounts (until they become alumni), Gabrielle said the company derives revenue through web searches from an e-mail inbox, and other Windows Live services still contain advertising for students.

“In addition, we hope that by providing users with a service that is flexible, easy to use, and meets their communication and collaboration needs, they will become lifelong users,” he said.

Swearing by it

Although a recent Gmail upgrade has drawn fire for slow e-mail downloads, failure to load pages, and crashing browsers, the CIO at Arizona State has no complaints.

ASU, which configured and deployed Gmail in two-week timeframe, makes the education edition available to 65,000 students, but there are about 55,000 active, seven-day users. Approximately 3,500 ASU students were using G-mail before the conversion from a homegrown web mail client 13 months ago, and they were forwarding their student e-mail to Gmail.

That gave Adrian Sannier, university technology officer at ASU, a pretty good idea that it would be well received, and his hunch was confirmed when students embraced it at a rate of 300 per hour. “This is part of the students' zeitgeist, I guess,” Sannier remarked.

According to Sannier, the benefits materialized immediately. ASU's technology staff now spends less time patching, upgrading, and otherwise maintaining e-mail software and hardware, and spends more time on strategic IT that brings value to the university. For example, a senior technology employee once devoted the bulk of his time to supporting the old system, but now works on upgrading ASU's distance education platform, which in recent years has suffered from underinvestment.

ASU, which retains the asu@edu domain, has since added calendaring, instant messaging, search, spread sheets, and online word processing documents - and its system is advancing at Google's much faster pace of innovation.

Security was addressed with the help of a single sign-on system, developed by ASU, to avoid having to log into multiple systems for transcripts, course assignments, and other data.

According to Sannier, the system has yet to experience an interruption in service or a loss of data, and it eventually could serve faculty and staff.

Nationally, UW-Madison's Kraemer said there isn't good data on whether outsourced e-mail costs more or saves more because no studies have been done, but Sannier believes ASU will save roughly $400,000 annually.

“This was the best decision I've ever made,” Sannier said.

Technically speaking

Lee Rasch, president of Western Technical College, said the La Crosse school chose the Microsoft product because of its functionality, cost, and portability for students, and it has delivered on all fronts.

“I'm stressing that with our colleagues, the other technical college presidents,” Rasch said. “We made the decision, and we're pleased with the decision.”

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Joe responded 7 years ago: #1

ASU has more students than UW. They saved $400 thousand, and UW will save $2.4 million? Nice math.

Tom responded 7 years ago: #2

The UW would have to keep running email, calendar and other collaboration tools for faculty and staff. This puts the IT administrators and support staff in the position of supporting 2 systems, as well as deal with compatibility issues between the 2 systems (assuming you actually want students to collaborate with their teachers!)

The real reason ASU saved money is because they were already running 2 email systems; one for students and the other for faculty and staff. They would have saved a similar amount, or more, if they would have just consolidated students onto the other system.

It is true that outsourcing can save money, but consolidation will save more. If you can't outsource all of it, then it will inevitably cost more to outsource only a portion of it.

Joe II responded 7 years ago: #3

Uh, Joe, the $2.4 million figure refers to all students at Wisconsin tech colleges and universities, not just UW-Madison.

Michael Ladage responded 7 years ago: #4

Jim Kreilich is right on the money with this one. Let's hope some changes occur. Money seems to be a top priority today and how to spend it most efficiently.

Peter Nohelty responded 7 years ago: #5

Jim Kreilich is bringing the perspective of good solid logic and experience to this proposed new approach. From my own personal perspective, having many years of experience in the IT industry and also a current IT manager in the Healthcare industry, I think that moving student e-mail into a non academic environment is a good sound approach. If this is optimally done with a sensible modern technology approach, this will save money. I agree that the Faculty and Staff will likely need a much smaller unified communications system that combines e-mail, v-mail and collaboration to together. This can be a much smaller system that doesn't require the licensing and student capacity built into it that it likely currently has.

If you are concerned about the ability to group students, etc. the university/institution can still maintain the distribution lists without having the mailboxes and the storage repository on their system. Maintaining the pointers to the mailboxes should be much simpler and cheaper than hosting the entire solution.

From a security perspective, if you put an encrypted mail connector to this externally hosted system that all mail passes between the two systems through, this should be a non issue. Most of these commercial providers have the ability to encrypt the storage of the mailboxes as well. With these two precautions and some administrative policies on how they run their mail system, this should take care of any issues with HIPAA or FERPA.

I agree with Jim's proposed change, and the statement made by Adrian Sannier. Moving IT resources to strategic areas that are being underserved or underinvested in is the key to getting greater value for the taxpayer's and students investement in these educational institiutions. Administrating student e-mail doesn't provide much value in my opinion.

"According to Sannier, the benefits materialized immediately. ASU's technology staff now spends less time patching, upgrading, and otherwise maintaining e-mail software and hardware, and spends more time on strategic IT that brings value to the university. For example, a senior technology employee once devoted the bulk of his time to supporting the old system, but now works on upgrading ASU's distance education platform, which in recent years has suffered from underinvestment."

Rick Jurmain responded 7 years ago: #6

In the corporate world, remote access to email by even a few offsite employees is a security nightmare for IT. Sooner or later some virus slips through and drops your system, or slows it down for a day while you clean it out and restore files. Losing even half a day's sales can be pretty nasty. In fact it's intolerable. There are several solutions to the problem, but by far the easiest and cheapest is using an external host like gmail, with optional POP3 forwarding. As I understand it, a university email system is like a corporate system where half or more of the access is remote. That's an unmitigated security nightmare. (Not to mention the ongoing cost even if it works right.) The IT people at my company wouldn't tolerate it, and they don't. Not when there's a free alternative available. To us it's a no-brainer. But I learned long ago that massive government bureaucracies behave differently from small corporations. That's one reason why I'm in a small corporation.

Jim Kreilich responded 7 years ago: #7

Central Piedmondt Community College recently gave a presentation explaining their conversion to GOOGLE along with a comparison of gmail & MS LIVE. Since presentation, GOOGLE now offers 6GB of storage for email, again FREE.
The download is for QUICKTIME

Chris G responded 7 years ago: #8

This looks like a solution that makes a lot of sense. Keep driving it Jim.

Jim Kreilich responded 7 years ago: #9

Now it appears Alaska will pull ahead of Wisconsin in providing better email and collaboration tools for its students! See news release:
University of Alaska considers Gmail
Thu, January 3, 2008
Posted in Alaska News

Jim Kreilich responded 7 years ago: #10

Seems over a 1,000 colleges have converted...WHY only 2 in WI ??? See latest news story...

Chronicle of Higher Education Jan 11, 2008
Colleges Get Out of E-Mail Business

Frantic troubleshooting by an overworked staff versus someone else fixing problems smoothly. A sliver of server space per person versus a five-gigabyte chunk. Half a million dollars versus free.

That's what colleges are faced with as they decide whether to continue running their own e-mail services or outsource them to a professional service like Google Apps Education Edition or Microsoft Live@edu.

It seems like a no-brainer. More than 1,000 colleges have signed up with those two companies because, college administrators say, it makes sense to let professionals take over. After all, colleges are educational institutions, not technology enterprises. With heavyweights like Google and Microsoft offering their already-popular services to colleges for free, the officials figure this is one sweet deal.


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