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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

April 4, 2008

ITS group ponders e-mail services

by Diana Pounds

An Information Technology Services group looking into ways to improve e-mail services on campus is considering partnering with Google, Yahoo or some other commercial e-mail provider to offer student e-mail. The group also is exploring extending Microsoft Exchange e-mail services to all faculty and staff.

It's too early to say whether a partnership with an outside firm will turn out to be viable at Iowa State. Indeed, the group is several months away from developing any recommendations. In this Inside Q&A, chief information officer Jim Davis and associate CIO Dave Popelka discuss the current state of e-mail at Iowa State and some options the ITS study group is pondering.

What prompted the study of ISU's e-mail services?

The study is part of our regular review of IT services. Things move so fast in information technology that we must periodically set aside time to explore an area, such as e-mail, to see what's new, improved or cost-effective. When we began our review of Iowa State's e-mail services, we noticed that some universities were offering their communities e-mail programs that included a richer set of tools.

We began to look at ways to enrich our e-mail offerings and provide more of the features that our students, faculty and staff say they want. One such feature is a calendar. Most students, and some faculty, do not have calendars integrated into their e-mail services.

What e-mail services do members of the campus community use?

Most students, and some faculty, use WebMail, a very basic system that doesn't include a calendar. However, approximately 18 percent of students have their WebMail forwarded to commercial sites, such as Google, Yahoo, Hotmail, Mediacom, MSN and AOL.

About half of all faculty and staff get their mail through a central Microsoft Exchange server, which powers MS Outlook and Entourage (for Mac). Some ISU employees also use Eudora, another basic system.

What prompted you to look at different e-mail services for students?

The large e-mail providers are constantly adding features and rolling out new technologies. It would be very hard for any university to supply such a rich set of educational tools. Google's Gmail is a good example. ISU students who use Gmail, rather than WebMail service, get these additional amenities: lots more storage space, a calendar, collaborative sharing of documents and instant messaging.

Which e-mail firms are under consideration for ISU students?

The ITS group is studying all available options, which include Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL e-mail systems.

What would it cost to offer student e-mail through one of these firms?

They all basically offer their e-mail services at no charge. In certain cases, we might have to buy one server to dedicate to the e-mail service.

What's the catch? What do these firms get out of providing free e-mail?

In exchange for the e-mail service, the firms seem to be seeking customer loyalty and future ad revenue. For example, Google says it doesn't advertise to students, but reserves the right to do so after they graduate.

What about privacy? Will the firms share students' private information or sell e-mail addresses?

The ITS group is looking very closely at these issues. The firms we're considering would have to agree not to share e-mail addresses, read e-mail or reveal private information to outsiders, except as required by law. E-mail privacy is very important to us.

Would ISU save money if student e-mail were offered through a third party?

Improving services -- not savings -- is the No. 1 concern. However, savings are welcome. For instance, the cost of anti-spam software is about to increase from $5,000 to more than $100,000 per year. Depending on the e-mail service we chose, we might be able to eliminate the anti-spam software cost entirely.

Have any other universities offered their e-mail through third parties?

Arizona State, the University of Southern California and Northwestern University are among the large universities that are offering e-mail through outside firms. According to a fall 2007 campus computing survey, 10 percent of U.S. institutions already work with third party e-mail providers. Another 7 percent plan to convert yet this year. And an additional 11 percent are reviewing their options for the future. Iowa State falls into this last category.

Why aren't you considering similar e-mail options for faculty and staff?

We might consider options in the future, but many of our faculty and staff already are on a very effective central Microsoft Exchange e-mail system that works well and provides the increasingly important calendaring feature. We are considering moving all employees onto the same server, which would reduce costs and decrease downtime.

When will the group complete its work, and what's the process after that?

The group expects to finish its report and make recommendations to the CIO in June. The recommendations then will be taken to the university community for dialog and review before any possible change in service would occur.


An Inside Q&A with chief information officer Jim Davis and associate CIO Dave Popelka on the current state of e-mail at Iowa State and some options the ITS study group is pondering.