Is it wise to replace local IT services with, say, Gmail?
February 24, 2009 2:45 PM   Subscribe

My computer science department is debating replacing its in-house services with internet-based services (e.g. no mail server, but use Gmail instead; no local home pages but use gmail pages instead). Is this a good idea? Any hidden traps/cost with the approach? Does anyone have success or horror stories with this approach that I can share with my committee?
posted by media_itoku to Education (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well did you get hit by the gmail outage this morning? I needed to send an imortant mail and gMail was down. Made me think long and hard about shifting to the cloud.
posted by gergtreble at 2:52 PM on February 24, 2009

I've switched several small businesses over to gmail apps. So far I haven't hit any snags. I've been very happy with everything. No experience with the gmail pages service though.

gergtreble brings up a valid point, though downtime isn't limited to online services. How long would it take to get back online if your exchange server fails? Sure it's possible that you've got a backup server and downtime would be minimal, but most small businesses I've seen don't.
posted by meta87 at 3:03 PM on February 24, 2009

My campus recently switched over to Microsoft Live for email. Uh... I don't use my campus mail anymore.

I have to log in through 3 screens, which then take me to an MSN homepage, and after that, I have to go find my email. Hideously difficult, hideously inefficient. I discovered how to forward mail from that to my real address, and have never been back in the system since.

Your mileage may vary, and Google is not Microsoft.. they do tend to do web-based smarter... but from the perspective of a student user? I hate the change.
posted by frwagon at 3:04 PM on February 24, 2009

I've changed over all my domains to gmail, and while it is free, it still has some slight issues...My main two complaints are: google monitors all abuse and postmaster can't create them...and all accounts have to be signed into and the license agreement has to be accepted before the account goes live....and you can't activate POP3 access without accessing the account...For me, this means every account I create, I have to sign into, accept the license agreement, and activate POP3 access before I notify my users. I know this is kinda against the point of the license agreement...but seriously..I set up some old folks that wouldn't know a license agreement if it hit em in the face.

All in all though...when is the last time you heard of gmail downtime? before last night it's been a real long while.

anyway, I think it is a wonderful service despite these minor flaws, and whole-heartedly recommend it.

posted by AltReality at 3:08 PM on February 24, 2009

AltReality: Are you sure about having to sign in and accept the license agreement to active pop3 access?

I just tested it on one of my client's accounts. I logged into the admin account, made a new account and set it up in osx mail without ever logging into the new account and it seems to be working fine. I can send and receive mail.
posted by meta87 at 3:20 PM on February 24, 2009

Washington D.C. went to Google Apps, opting out of desktop-based Microsoft solutions.

There is a big difference between going to a cloud-based solution that is intended for business (such as Google Apps for Business, Intuit Quickbase, the 37 Signals software suite)... and merely deciding to use free browser apps that are designed for consumers.

So, I would advise to be sure you are investigating "what happens when businesses go to the cloud," and not just anecdotes about "what happens when John Q. Public switches to Gmail."

Depending on the size and budget of your CS department, this really might be the right time and place to consider finding an outside consultant with solid SaaS chops to do a feasibility study for you.
posted by pineapple at 3:20 PM on February 24, 2009

Yeah, just to point out that when GMail was down the Google Apps suite was not. Changes are propagated to GMail well ahead of the Google Apps services (stuff like Groups, Documents and Spreadsheets were introduced later in the service offering).

I currently host about 80,000 accounts with Google Apps and couldn't be happier. I sometimes can't believe the service is free (for education).

They provide the ability to still route the mail through your own MTA's (which we're doing for archiving and reporting purposes). They support SSO so you if you've got an existing SAML based authentication mechanism (CAS or Shibboleth) then you don't have to worry about separate usernames or passwords.

To date (and we've been with them for about 2 years now) we've only experienced one major outage that was approximately 2 hours. Comparing that to our in-house hosted mail systems, it is actually better (not by much!) without any of the costs that go along with it.

Google also provides a relatively good API that will allow you to provision accounts, lists, calendars etc. A number of frameworks (particularly Zend if you're a PHP user) have Google Apps (or GData) integration libraries which makes developing services against it fairly easy.
posted by purephase at 3:30 PM on February 24, 2009

Well did you get hit by the gmail outage this morning? I needed to send an imortant mail and gMail was down. Made me think long and hard about shifting to the cloud.

Unless you're running postfix on your home computer, any email you send goes through a mail server, whether it's run by Google or Verizon or Local Biz Inc. Gmail's uptime is, all things considered, pretty damn good, and arguably better than you'll get from your corporate mail server (see purephase's comment above on that one). The cloud has its problems, but absolute uptime isn't likely one of them.
posted by The Michael The at 4:13 PM on February 24, 2009

I'd be far more willing to go with gmail than I would to give in to Google pages. I can't imagine a student nerdy experience without a shell account and the opportunity to really mess things up.
posted by advicepig at 4:21 PM on February 24, 2009

The Lakehead faculty association filed a grievance last year over their school's switching to Google. Info is here, it's based on worries over students' information being subject to the Patriot Act which conflicts with Canadian privacy laws.

I see that you're in the States, but these concerns still have meaning. That happened last year, I don't know offhand what ended up coming of it.
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:30 PM on February 24, 2009

I'm not sure specifically what "in-house" services includes, so this might be out of scope of the question... Does your department offer any web design courses, and how will your students have a place to upload stuff for testing?

I once tried to teach a very basic introductory web design class using GooglePages, and it was pretty much a disaster. Not sure if Google's Sites is any different - a cursory look-see isn't promising.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:59 PM on February 24, 2009

frwagon, if you have to go through that many screens to get to Live@EDU e-mail someone gave you the wrong sign-on URL. I also use Live@EDU mail and I go to a single page, enter my e-mail address and password, and am taken directly to my inbox.

sorry for the off-topic; i just wanted to point that out
posted by fireoyster at 5:27 PM on February 24, 2009

Our school more or less did this. Our mail server now goes through Google but still has the school's front end(ie, you still have to log in through the school's web portal).

Let me first say that the old mail servers sucked and were quite unreliable. You could send something and it was very possible that the recipient wouldn't receive it until 24 hours later, that is, IF they received it at all. (Just imagine trying to explain that one to a professor when you mail him your homework)
Anyway, when they switched to Gmail, it was great. Things were speedy and mail was much more reliable.
posted by nikkorizz at 6:30 PM on February 24, 2009

But, uh... this was purely from a mail based experience. We still don't have all the other Gmail applications.
posted by nikkorizz at 6:32 PM on February 24, 2009

I work at a small company, we use Google Apps (the "for your domain" version) and it works fine, though I think the Google Sites usability could be improved greatly.

It really does depend how mission-critical perfect uptime is, but I don't know if you can really do that much better than Google without spending money. That's the huge advantage with the Google apps--you don't waste time/money troubleshooting or maintaining anything. Of course, then you lose control if something breaks.
posted by melvinwang at 7:12 PM on February 24, 2009

I don't know what specific concerns there are, but every time that's mentioned here, someone brings up FERPA compliance. So, that might also be a factor.
posted by hades at 7:50 PM on February 24, 2009

An anecdote here - my campus mail is unusable due to spam (and the department doesn't have the resources to properly deal with it). My gmail rocks. I've switched entirely over to gmail.

Also using Gmail for a domain, and have had zero issues with it.

Highly recommended if you don't have the $ and staff to properly run your own mail servers.
posted by zippy at 11:42 PM on February 24, 2009

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