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Dal experiments with Gmail

By Katrina PyneStaff Contributor

Dalhousie is putting Google to the test. The university’s alumni e-mail accounts are now hosted through Gmail, instead of through the university’s website.
Dwight Fischer, assistant vice president of Information Technology Services at Dal says it’s a way of “dipping their feet in the water.”
It’s a move that might see 52,000 Dal student, alumnus and employee accounts switch to Google or Microsoft providers. The current school provider has experience problems crashing and losing e-mails.
Fischer says the system needs to be replaced, but it would cost Dal several million dollars. Switching to a Google or Microsoft provider looks ideal.
“Both Google and Microsoft have tremendous capacity beyond what we offer,” he says.
But with affordability comes another issue – privacy is lost under a switchover to an American-owned e-mail account.
The United States Patriot Act gives U.S. authorities the right to search phone, e-mail and other records sourced on American soil.
“It does make me concerned, but that’s the world we live in,” says Fischer.
He says e-mail privacy is a “dated concept.”
“At the point of send, we lose control,” he adds.
Today’s technology-savvy generation live in a different world. They tend to disclose sensitive information through e-mail.
“Don’t operate under false assumptions of privacy,” says Fischer, “Stop using e-mail for private, sensitive communication.”
There are many draws to Google or Microsoft. Google now offers 25 gigabytes of space compared to Dal’s current e-mail system, which has about 0.5 gigabytes.
“What we’re driving is a 1990 Buick,” says Fischer. “We can keep putting money into that but it’s still a 1990 Buick. We have to ask where we want to be.”
It’s not uncommon for Dal employees to reach the capacity every few weeks. When you get close to that barrier, it’s a matter of cleaning it up, deleting e-mails and losing records.
But for students, storage is less pressing.
“Most students don’t approach their capacity,” says Mark Hobbs, DSU vice president (internal).
David Lewis, first year representative on the King’s Student Union, agrees.
“What we have here in terms of storage is fine,” he says. “However the interface is not user friendly.”
“It needs to be re-organized,” says Dave Etherington, president of the King’s Student Union. “The e-mail system right now is insensitive to more involved students.”
According to Dal’s technology services, 10 per cent of students forward their e-mail to Google. So Fischer says the resources to maintain the university’s e-mail system could be put elsewhere.
“Wouldn’t we be better off putting our money towards the classrooms, invest in the teaching and the learning, not commodity services?” he says.
The term is “cloud computing.” It’s a general term for anything that involves delivering hosted services over the Internet, such as e-mail or storage. It allows for companies to focus on their main business rather than the surrounding infrastructure.
In Dal’s case, it would theoretically allow the university to put more money toward teaching as opposed to spending it on e-mail access.
The shift to cloud computing has become huge amongst businesses, according to Fischer.
According to a University of Alberta study, switching to Google would provide centralized e-mail and calendaring, and increased security from viruses.
After doing the study, the University of Alberta signed a four-year contract with Google. They hope to begin the switchover in early 2010.
So where does that leave Dal?
According to Hobbs there has been a significant drop in the number of student complaints concerning Dal’s e-mail system in the last year.
“There is no e-mail ambulance going to the hospital any time soon,” says Hobbs.
Although Hobbs would like to see changes to Dal’s e-mail, he says there’s no driving force to switch over.
“It just has to work and it just has to be functional,” he says.

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