ITS Begins Email and Calendaring Re-Evaluation

Eric Behrens, Associate Chief Information Technology Officer, will lead an ITS project to look at the future of email and personal calendaring systems at Swarthmore. Although the current system is certainly usable, many have expressed a desire for a personal calendaring solution and improvements to other components. At this point, ITS is simply looking for community feedback; Behrens said that it is too early in the process to even begin mentioning specific product names.

ITS currently runs a standard Postfix email server with SquirrelMail for webmail. Both of these programs are open-source. Although there is no personal calendaring system available to students Tri-Co faculty and staff use Meeting Maker software.

ITS began evaluating options to improve this situation since last fall. According to Behrens, however, “We probably got the cart a little bit before the horse.” ITS began talking to the public about potential solutions that they were researching and “somewhere along the way, miscommunication happened: different signals and messages were being heard without real clarity about what our process would be.”

Although these internal conversations were very useful in helping to learn about the potential tradeoffs of various solutions, it was determined that it would be better to start over with a “listening phase,” to figure out the community’s thoughts on the matter. ITS wants to find out what tools people are using now, what features people think are important for an email and calendaring solution. For instance, is it important for students to be on the same calender system as faculty and staff? What are the community’s needs in terms of document sharing?

There are also some other issues to be considered: are externally hosted solutions, like Google’s suite, reasonable? What products offer a “reasonable parity” between users on Windows and Macintosh platforms? How will users migrate from their current applications to the new system?

Another issue to consider is the inherent volatility of offerings from small companies. For example, when ITS began considering Zimbra last fall, it was a small independent corporation. Then it was acquired by Yahoo! in September; now, Yahoo! itself is under threat of hostile takeover from “the behemoth of Microsoft.”

Behrens said that even the Meeting Maker application will be re-evaluated, as “the Tri-Co covenant around Meeting Maker, if you will, has already been broken.” Bryn Mawr is in the process of adopting an integrated email and calendar system.

The events calendar which was introduced this year will probably remain, however. The public web calendar serves a promotional and informative purpose, which a personal calendaring system would not. Integration would certainly be desirable, however; Behrens said that it “would be really nice,” for example, to say that you want to know about math colloquia and have them automatically appear on your personal calendar.

Later this week, a survey will be sent to students asking for their opinions and information on what tools they currently use. Afterwards, the results will be compiled and summaries released to the public. In mid-April, ITS will host meetings open to all members of the community to foster discussion on the topic. Updates will also be posted on the ITS blog.

Behrens said that hopefully, the community will be able to consolidate around a choice next fall.

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