Some software is fairly transparent to the end user. When we switch VPN clients, for example, most of our staff never knows. When we switch virus protection packages, you get a little notification and other than perhaps an eNews article, nothing really changes. When a wbsite moves from DotNetNuke to Drupal, or a database is shifted from MS-SQL Server to Oracle, nobody outside of IT should ever have to worry about it.
Email and calendaring software is of a greater magnitude than those packages, however. We all use email daily, and in many cases we live our work-lives based on what is in our calendars. Given the importance of that software, the need for a smooth switch from one email package to another takes on a critical air. We will be undergoing just such a switch this summer here at Davenport University as we move our email and calendaring services from Novell Groupwise (where we’ve been for 12 years) to Google Apps for Education.
This is an exciting switch, and there are a host of reasons we have decided to make this move. I would like to briefly touch on those here, and then invite you to attend one of the as-of-yet unscheduled town-hall-style meetings I will be holding around the University to discuss this pending change.
Google Apps will give us better mobile access to our information than we currently have. Our smartphones, which are currently configured and supported by the CSC cause us unending trouble. Because Groupwise does not have sufficient smartphone support built in, we rely upon third-party software integration. Most people who have these phones on campus are either using them without support, or have experienced some of the pain and suffering to which I’m alluding. The move to Google will dramatically simplify the process of configuring smartphones to receive email and calendar appointments, allowing CSC to support a larger group of users without increasing software costs in the process.
Similarly, because Google Apps runs entirely through the web, the interface with which you are confronted when doing your email will be the same, at every computer you use, regardless of whether you’re at home, at your office or at a public internet terminal (e.g. a library, or airport kiosk). In addition, no matter who you are, you will see the same interface. From students, to online-only adjunct professors, our software will look and act the same. The benefits of such consistency are tremendous.
This shift not only improves the user experience by making it consistent from one session to the next, it also simplifies our support infrastructure. It no longer matters if you’re on VPN, or if you’re in a hotel. The CSC will know exactly what you’re seeing on your screen because it will be the same thing they see, and the same thing we all see every time we use email. Additionally, if a student asks their professor how to change their password (for example) the professor might actually know the answer because he or she may have done the same thing themselves. As we stand today, students use a system that much of our staff has never seen or used.
Our students use Google Apps already. They have for two years. In that time, we have been unable to easily share calendars and appointments back and forth between Groupwise and “Panther Mail” (which is what we branded the student version of Google Apps). While that has not prevented us from doing business, the alternative (collaborative calendaring within a single software package) will make us more productive and improve the student/faculty/staff relationship.
Imagine the opportunity to create a single calendar of school events, shared between staff, faculty and students. Or, perhaps you like the idea of using Google to publish faculty office hours in a format we can easily share with students. We don’t yet know what great things you all will think of, but I am confident that the opportunity to collaborate more opening, outside of our existing silos will open up new ways of doing business more efficiently.
Google serves calendars and mail for over 6,000,000 students and several hundred thousand faculty and staff members at thousands of schools around the globe. In addition, the same software package is used by more than 3 million businesses as their primary email and calendaring package. Moving our students and staff to Google Apps for Education will give us the power of that multitude of users when seeking peer support. Already, many schools in Michigan, including neighbors in Grand Rapids and metro-Detroit, have made the switch. Using the same systems as our neighbors around the state will reduce our consulting and support costs as our internal departments (both within IT and outside) can discuss potential solutions and jointly develop software to enhance the experience.
Cost should never be the primary reason for selecting technology, but savings help and when the need to fund new initiatives and goals is hampered by old spending habits, we all lose. The cost to maintain our Groupwise infrastructure is frustratingly high, and grows annually. Our servers filtered over 35,000,000 spam messages last year (that’s over 80% of our mail traffic). They work great, but the cost to maintain them goes up as we add more to the cluster and continue to replace the older ones. What’s more, we host mail-servers at each location, each of which has a 3-5 year lifespan. Our storage array (hard-drives in the data center to store mail) also grows every year, and needs to be replaced periodically.
In short, the cost to host mail ourselves has gotten to the point where moving the service to a trusted, enterprise-class vendor who does this for millions of students and several hundred thousand staff and faculty just makes sense. We will save well over $100,000 per year with this solution, and in doing so we will open up new ways to do business collaboratively, enhance mobile usage of the web, and join other schools who have already made the switch.
We have established a large, cross-functional project team to guide this project from inception (back in December) through launch (some time this summer). With representation from most major user groups we will ensure the right features are evaluated, training is developed and delivered that works for you, and that the roll-out moves as smoothly as possible. Sure, there will be bumps along the way, but with the team in place to lead this change, we will enter the fall semester with a new system up and running, and the majority of the major bugs worked out.
We have contracted a local firm to assist in the migration of existing data. You will not lose your email, your existing calendar appointments or your mail contacts during this switch. Instead, we plan to bring them over for you, into the new system. This should smooth the transition for our end-users, and preserve your productivity through the change process.
After the Switch
Some time after this switch is completed, we plan to start rolling out other, optional Google services. In the queue are video chat (powered by Google Talk), Google Sites (which gives students and faculty web-space on which to build small websites of their own), Google Docs (where large, geographically disparate groups can collaboratively author documents) and other services as well. Partnering with Google will give us access to technologies like these, as well as new ones down the road, all served through the web and all sporting consistent interfaces for all end-users.
ITS will evaluate these new features and apps, train you on them, and roll them out slowly when the time is right. In the meantime, our focus will be on email, calendaring and contacts.
I will be coming to a campus near you, some time this spring, to discuss this project. Please plan to attend a session if you have questions, concerns or would just like to talk about the change.