ITS to Use Microsoft Exchange for Email

The school considered and rejected Google Apps and Zimbra.

Swarthmore’s current system, SquirrelMail, seems to be appropriately named. Squirrels are ubiquitous on campus, but no one really likes them very much; similarly, most students seem to not particularly like SquirrelMail’s interface. Many aspects of the current email system are also technically “less than desirable,” says ITS Associate Director Glenn Stauffer, particularly infrastructure stability and the hodgepodge of different calendaring systems, none of them particularly integrated with anything else.

Last year, ITS considered a move to Google’s web-based email, calendaring, and messaging system, which would hopefully solve some of those problems. This idea was appealing to many students — indeed, as of February almost five hundred students were forwarding their emails to the public GMail service. The idea proved to be less appealing to ITS, however: said Stauffer, “Some of the things we were looking for [Google] to develop by this point hadn’t been.” Important no-shows include improvements to the administration interface and connectivity with Active Directory software.

After talking a “good bit” with Google over the summer, ITS determined that they couldn’t reasonably expect the features they needed for three or four months — too long a timeframe to be reasonable. After making such a commitment, “pulling back from [it] gets very difficult, and is very disruptive to the system overall” in the event that anything else goes wrong.

Once Google Apps had been eliminated from consideration, ITS considered using Zimbra’s collaboration suite, which includes email and calendar functions and has “significant penetration in the higher-ed market.” From an end-user’s point of view, its software is similar in many ways to Google applications, though it doesn’t include an instant-messaging framework. Also, it offers support for synchronization with both Outlook and Apple Mail. On the administrative side, Stauffer said that its “core components are very similar” to the current framework, meaning “there wouldn’t be a big conversion process” in implementing the software. ITS probably would not have used the calendaring features in Zimbra very much, though, although personal users could have employed them: MeetingMaker, the faculty-only calendar system, is a TriCo system and so ITS “[doesn’t] want to mess with it,” according to Stauffer.

ITS got as far in the adoption process as setting up a test server (formerly located at zimbra.swarthmore.edu, though students were unable to log in). Last week, however, Zimbra announced that it was being acquired by Yahoo!. Stauffer said that because of the purchase, he expects “that we will see significant changes in Zimbra’s product and/or delivery model…it [could] be another 6-12 months before Yahoo’s future for the product is clear,” which would be far too long for ITS’s purposes. As such, “Zimbra is no longer being considered a viable solution.”

Zimbra itself says that the acquisition will not affect customers, but it seems that many customers aren’t thrilled with the acquisition. Said Stauffer, “I’ve always told people that with a small company like [Zimbra], if you’re looking at them five, ten years down the road, where will they be?” He cited the example of Scalix, another web-based email system that was creating a lot of buzz but “ran into financial difficulties” this summer and was purchased by Xandros, a Linux distributor. Some online commentators are worrying that Zimbra will merely be integrated into Yahoo! Mail, which would likely drastically change subscription offerings.

This issue of corporate stability, however, doesn’t apply to ITS’s current plan for email systems, which has been around since 1996 and, Stauffer says, currently backs about sixty percent of corporate email systems: Microsoft Exchange, specifically the new 2007 version. Exchange offers email and calendar services, as well as some unique services such as “Unified Messaging,” which an unreliable source describes as “let[ting] users receive voice mail, e-mail, and faxes in their mailboxes.”

Although many students now use Macintosh computers and many others use Firefox or the like on Windows, Stauffer says that they shouldn’t feel that they’re missing out on anything important in the Internet Explorer-only version of the Exchange webmail. The non-IE version “has improved a lot in the most recent version…the only real difference is that maybe the calendaring application looks slightly different, some other things along those lines.” (In this reporter’s experience with the older Exchange 2003, the version of webmail which Firefox or Mac users viewed was significantly less “polished” than the IE version, being about equivalent to SquirrelMail.) Stauffer also said that ITS is “on the list” to beta test Office 2008 for the Macintosh, which should include significant improvements to Entourage, Microsoft’s mail program for Mac.

ITS is also planning to look into how Exchange will interoperate with the new calendar system. This system will still be used for campus events, while some combination of the Exchange calendar system and MeetingMaker will be used for personal meetings and the like. Stauffer says that one major goal for the calendar system is to “not have separate student and faculty networks,” so that students can schedule appointments with teachers and the like through a calendar system, as opposed to the hopelessly old-fashioned method of just emailing them.

The system should “definitely be in place by next fall,” says Stauffer, “though probably earlier than that.” Also, he says that once ITS is farther along in the process, “official announcements and timeframes” will be made; “we’re just so early in the process now, it wouldn’t make sense to promise specific things.”

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0 comments

  1. 0
    Aaron says:

    Going with Exchange over Zimbra simply because Zimbra was purchased by Yahoo? Dumbest decision ever! Obviously a decision made by a clueless non IT administration retard. Zimbra’s management will remain the same – why would Yahoo want to mess with a company that is doing so well. They simply want some of that pie…. I would be more interested in knowing how Zimbra is going to change Yahoo and not the other way around.

  2. 0
    Chris Segal '05 says:

    After leaving Swarthmore in 2005 I spent two years at the University of Pennsylvania, where they were also looking to outsource their clunky and unreliable e-mail service. After looking for a long time at Google and Microsoft, they too chose Microsoft. Why? Because Microsoft was willing to customize the system to the needs of the Penn administration, which Google refused to do.

    It appears that the alarmed comments above consist of either annoyance that at this time Microsoft’s system looks less than pretty when viewed in Firefox or concern about Apple compatibility. The latter is a legitimate concern, and I am sure that ITS and/or Microsoft are working on that. It would in fact be a campus-wide problem, and I hope that ITS will address it directly before this proposal becomes final.

    But what no one seems to be considering is the college’s needs. This won’t just be a student e-mail system, but also a system used by faculty and staff, and a system for which the college will quite possibly have evolving needs. They need both stability and flexibility, in the form of a representative they can call up next month or next year who will respond to their concerns and adjust the system accordingly to make it the best system for Swarthmore. Only Microsoft offers that, and that makes Microsoft the best choice for the college as a whole.

  3. 0
    Micaela '07 says:

    I think if you want a lot of features you are probably using Gmail or Thunderbird or Mail already, so the best choice would be a client that works with those (working with Gmail is obviously not an issue) and is simple and user-friendly for people who don’t care about advanced features.

    On my current campus, we use a Sun Microsystems client, which isn’t exactly fancy but seems simple and stable enough. We have a separate client for scheduling office hours with professors– also straightforward, easy to use, no-frills, and effective (I think the campus IT office people coded it themselves). Integration is kind of overrated.

    Also “corporate stability” doesn’t mean much when you’re changing clients every two years because no one can stand the one you’ve chosen (as has happened in the past).

  4. 0
    Glenn Stauffer says:

    With regard to this article, I would like to clarify a few things.

    While we definitely are actively examining options for overhauling our messaging infrastructure, we have not made any product selection and none will be made without significant community involvement.

    The technology decision will, as it should, support the needs of the community. Based on these community discussions, a short-list of considered products will be developed. The products from this list will be examined in-depth against usability, functionality, business, and technical criteria before any final product selection is made.

    As for Exchange, we would be remiss to not put this product on our short-list and give it due consideration. With respect to Zimbra, I stand by my statement that the product’s future is not clear and I don’t expect it to be clear for another 6-12 months and, then, depending upon how significantly Yahoo changes the product, it may be many months more before there is something that could be tested – though I expect market pressures will have them release something in the 6-12 month time-frame. And, finally, with regard to Google Apps, we had explored implementing a separate Gmail domain for students this summer, but decided against it. This decision does not eliminate Google’s product from future consideration.

    But, lest I forget myself again and get too wrapped up in thinking about the merits of the various product choices in and of themselves, the choice of a product for our messaging, calendaring, and collaboration infrastructure is about choosing the right technology to meet the needs of the community, not bending the needs of the community to meet the demands of a technology decision.

  5. 0
    David German says:

    I don’t see Exchange as a threat to my Microsoft-free life: Exchange server supports IMAP, so I’ll be able to read and send mail in Thunderbird or Apple Mail just as I always have. For those who prefer gMail, as Nathan points out, there will surely still be forwarding.

    That said, I doubt that prettier webmail for IE users and another unintegrated calendar system are worth the expense of a change. If there are no really compelling options now, why not stay with the current system until a vendor gets its act together?

    Question for the Gazette: will ITS be running its own Exchange server locally, or contracting out for hosting?

  6. 0
    Alicia de los Reyes says:

    Luckily, we’ll be getting out of here before it actually changes…then our internet glitches won’t be anyone else’s fault but our own.

  7. 0
    MIchael Cohen says:

    Microsoft E-mail?? At Swarthmore?? Ew.

    I should point out that Microsoft E-mail systems have this habit of not playing particularly nice with GMail and other mail programs. Mostly, this comes up if a GMail user is trying to send a message as “From” another address (ie. a Swarthmore address). Microsoft E-mail programs seem to show the underlying GMail address in a particularly prominent and awkward way… (I might have noticed this more than most people because my GMail address–indecisiveswattie–isn’t really something I want people to see when I’m sending important messages, but…it seems like this is generally less than ideal.) There’s also an issue that attachments on at least some versions of Microsoft E-mail systems are encoded in a form that at least some other E-mail programs can’t read. (I know that Thunderbird can’t read the format by default, although there is a plugin through which it can.) And as other people have said, the issue of punishing people who aren’t using IE for Windows should be important at Swarthmore, since a lot of people at Swarthmore would be using either Firefox for Windows or a Mac.

    Of course, I’m not sure exactly what would better, since, as much as I like (and use) GMail, I also would be ambivalent about using GMail as my primary E-mail, given some occasionally unpredictable behavior and annoying quirks I’ve seen with it. But there has to be SOMETHING out there that’s better than Microsoft…

  8. 0
    Nathan La Porte says:

    I agree with Miles. The specific issue here is that Exchange has a history of blocking interoperability with non-Microsoft products, such as Apple Mail. In addition, it sets a disturbing precedent that ITS is willing to exclude a large section of the student body who do not use Internet Explorer from a fully-featured webmail client. I predict that this will only cause more students to forward their webmail to Gmail…an action which ITS should realize means that is the interface we want to use.

  9. 0
    Finlay Logan ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Maybe I’ll think differently when this actually gets implemented (if indeed it does before the plan changes again), but I’m really disappointed that ITS eventually went with a system that has a subpar version of the software for Firefox users. Even if the difference is just cosmetic, or a minor increase in clunkiness, it’s pretty much inexcusable that Firefox-using students should be punished for their choice of browser.

    I was really excited about Google apps, too. GMail and GDocs are among the best things that have ever happened to me. I guess I understand why it didn’t work for ITS, but I’m pretty sure it would have been good enough for me…

  10. 0
    Miles Skorpen ( User Karma: 6 ) says:

    I find it interesting that a 6-12 month wait was considered so unacceptable.

    I’d think that a more open alternative to Exchange would be better, particularly as the long term future of Office on OSX is unclear and, in my experience, Entourage is a less-than-desirable mail client, all-in-all—and a huge percentage of the student body now uses Macintosh computers.

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