U. considers outsourcing student e-mail

Friday, September 28, 2007

Three weeks into school, Rajan Kothari ’11 had already filled his Brown e-mail account.

“I was attempting to send MP3 files as attachments, but after three e-mails, I got an error message,” he recalled. Before he could send another e-mail, he had to sift through his inbox, deleting about 20 messages. “There was a lot of space that needed clearing. That was just a hassle.”

Kothari is one of many Brown students frustrated with the University e-mail system’s meager 50 megabytes of online mail storage. “It’s definitely something people call the Help Desk about,” said Timothy Thorp, manager of communications and education at Computing and Information Services.

In less than a year, though, the storage space for Brown’s e-mail system may increase. Michael Pickett, the vice president for computing and information services, described plans still being discussed to expand Brown e-mail’s storage capacity and to possibly outsource the e-mail system to a provider like Google, Microsoft or Yahoo.

Outsourcing Brown e-mail would allow students to keep the same account the rest of their lives, avoiding the potentially messy business of transferring their e-mail when their Brown account expires after graduation. Storage capacities would skyrocket to between two and three gigabytes, Pickett explained. And the University would save money by circumventing the need to buy online storage space directly.

“These are things that we would be very seriously considering,” said Pickett, who is currently attending a conference where he debated the use of commercial servers for student accounts.

Some students have already opted to have their e-mail forwarded to an outside account, giving them increased storage while maintaining their college e-mail address. As of mid-August, 849 undergraduate students had their Brown e-mail handled by a third party server, the most popular being Google’s Gmail, with 651 student users, Thorp wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Thorp explained that e-mail in their Brown inbox is lost when the transfer occurs, unless the student saves the messages locally in an application such as Microsoft Outlook or Macintosh’s Mail program before making the switch.

“I think that that step can be intimidating to just a normal computer user,” he said. The CIS Web site does preface this option with the ominous phrase, “advanced users only,” but Thorp urged students to visit the CIS Help Desk if they need assistance forwarding their e-mail.

Pickett himself uses Gmail and agrees that “there is an awful lot to be gained by it,” but he emphasized that users can lose privacy by switching over to an external server. According to Pickett, servers such as Gmail make money by scanning private e-mail for keywords, then tailoring their advertising to each user.

“If, for example, you are sending e-mails about bicycling, you might see ads for great bicycle accessories,” explained Pickett. Though most universities negotiate with the servers to protect their students from e-mail monitoring, once the student graduates he will start to see targeted ads popping up in his account. Pickett also mentioned the possibility of an outside server going out of business, causing users to lose all of their stored e-mail.

The University is in the process of buying additional storage, though how much and when is still unknown, Pickett said. After that, Pickett said he hopes to outsource e-mail to an outside server, but first the University must understand the risks involved.

“The speed of implementation depends on the concerns of the University community,” said Pickett, adding that students might see this transition in a year or two. “We’re keeping an open mind on this,” he said.

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