Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Email & Calendar: The Big Event

We're at the early stages of a plan to replace the university's email and calendar systems. Last week we held an event to kick this off. 300 Bristol staff and students gathered in the beautiful Tyndall Lecture theatre to see demos from Microsoft & Google, and most importantly ask questions. I was delighted to see so many people turn out, who were obviously interested and engaged. We've had some great feedback since, that people really welcomed the opportunity to get involved.

Involving people at such an early stage was very deliberate. In the past the IT department at Bristol has sometimes been guilty of failing consulting people early enough, and providing technical solutions which are good in what they are, but don't actually do what people need them to. This project is part of a commitment that the new IT Services organisation will do things differently in future.

Why do we want to replace email & calendar?

Because you told you to! It's been the top IT request from staff surveys for some time, and one of the top requests from students. People said they wanted a modern, easier to use email client to replace Mulberry, with email and calendar in one. Something that work on desktops, mobile & the web. Above all, people need far more quota, so you don't have to spend time sorting and deleting your old mail.

What do we want to provide?

For staff: a modern, integrated email & calendar in one. After that, a better way to share and collaborate on documents too.
For students: an email for life service - get an email address when you arrive at Bristol, and keep the same address even after graduation. Great for your CV and for job applications.
For everyone: more quota! Something in the range 7GB - 10GB per person

How can we do it?

We are looking at two products as the top two contenders: Microsoft Live@Edu & Google Apps for Education. Both of these are delivered as cloud computing, or Software as a Service - rather than being run on machines on site at the university, they are run by the supplier in their datacentres, and we access them over the Internet. In the last few years, many other universities have adopted cloud services for their email, originally for student use, but increasingly for staff use too. It's a different model for delivering services, with various advantages. One large advantage is that we can deploy cloud solutions quickly, and once adopted we stay up to date. We continue to benefit from improvements as soon as the supplier makes them, rather than going through long cycles to provision, upgrade, and roll out on site. Although we spend very little on our current email service, in the long term cloud services will be cheaper too, especially when providing increasing amounts of storage.

When will we deliver?

Going back years the university had previous plans to improve our email systems, which didn't get far. This time we know that we need to deliver, and not hang about.

We plan to rollout a replacement email service to new students entering the university September 2011. We think that is realistic and achievable. Soon after that, current students would be able to opt in, then alumni too.

Throughout the autumn term we would run pilots with staff in some small departments. A rollout to all staff would happen in 2012, with the timetable determined by the experience of the pilot.

What happens next?

In a few days we'll be launching a survey for feedback from people who came to the event - we'll email the attendees to let you know when this launches. We're interested to know which you prefer, but it's probably more important to know what your requirements are. That way we can work out whether either or both of the products meet your requirements and make sure we deliver what you need.

In addition there are many crucial factors which didn't really come out in the presentations:
  • security of our data: data protection, contractual terms. How good are the APIs so we have the ability to get our data back out again?
  • length of contract available, total costs (while the core of both products is free of charge to education customers, there are extras which could get very expensive)
  • Reliability - is it solid, has has it got a strong and proven history, are other universities happy with it?
  • The future of the product - is the supplier committed to it, what support is available?
  • integration with other systems - stuff we're already running and likely to use in future. Which supplier has the better ecosystem?
We've already done a fair bit of work on these, working with the University Secretary's Office (our internal team of lawyers and data protection specialists). We'll be having further discussions in private with both Microsoft & Google to explore these further. I'm also talking to other universities who have already done this, to learn from their experiences.

Watch this space for more news...

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