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.”