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College slashes storage costs with Google Gmail

Beth Pariseau

As Google branches out from search engines to enterprise applications, early adopter Arizona State University (ASU) said it's saving hundreds of thousands on email storage costs using Google's Gmail.

ASU is in the midst of migrating its students' email systems from open source Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) servers and Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp) FAS980 filers to Google's email application and hosted storage. The applications package was released last fall and also includes a calendar program, instant messaging, personalized start pages, a webpage creator, and a documents and spreadsheets program. ASU was a beta tester for the package, which is offered by Google free of charge to all of its users.

Currently, according to Ron Page, director of technology integration in the university technical office for ASU, some 40,000 of the school's 65,000 students have switched to their new Google accounts, which offer 2 GB of storage per inbox. Previously, inbox quotas had been 50 MB per student.

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"Google has economies of scale that we don't have," Page said.

The university has already been able to transition two of its four full-time engineers who had managed the 4 terabyte (TB) NetApp storage system to other functions, according to Page. As soon as the migration is complete, the other two will be reassigned as well. Once the NetApp filer is also reassigned, Page said, the switch to Gmail will save the university $350,000 per year in storage, maintenance and personnel costs.

Page said some students are waiting for Gmail to offer direct migration services from their iMap accounts or for Post Office Protocol (POP) access to the Gmail folders, something not currently offered by the program. Some 15,000 faculty and staff members also remain to be migrated and are still running Exchange for email.

According to Page, the staff remain with Microsoft's program because of interface and collaborative features not yet available in Gmail, including distribution lists, shared calendars and public folders. "We plan to move everyone to Google eventually," he said. "We see them as a strategic partner for the long term, but they don't quite have the integrated features we need yet."

One thing Page said the university isn't worried about is the possible security, compliance and reliability implications of outsourcing email storage to a big company like Google. The university must be in compliance with a statute called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which imposes privacy regulations on student information. Page said there were initially concerns about Google's embedded email advertisements in light of this statute, since Google's search engines crawl within email messages in order to display targeted ads. Student accounts within the Apps for Education package don't have the ads, but alumni and staff using Gmail will see them, he said. Still, "Google was able to satisfy our internal counsel with their privacy policy, which states that information gleaned from email messages is not connected to specific senders or recipients," according to Page.

As for reliability, Page said that since ASU has been testing the Gmail system since October, it's shown better reliability than the university's in-house system. "Our system has had 99.9% reliability in that time," he said. "Gmail has had 100%." Security wise, he said, he trusts Google's much larger staff and vast resources to keep security policies and measures, like antivirus patches, more current than if the university were to manage the email system itself.

The tradeoff, he admitted, is that though Google has thousands more employees, it also has thousands and thousands of customers. However, Page said, the university has a more-the-merrier philosophy about that. "We believe that it will still work to our advantage. Whatever Google does for customer A will help customer B, and the more customers there are, the more advances in the technology there will be," he said.

As part of Apps for Education, Google offers extensible APIs and is partnering with some institutions, including ASU, to design new features and to integrate the applications into onsite authentication processes so students can have one sign-on to their homepage: email, student directory and webspace. Ultimately, Page said, the school is hoping to outsource all systems other than custom critical applications like PeopleSoft databases for student registration to Google.

"Our goal is for our IT people to become implementers of technology to improve the educational experience instead of continuing as service providers and systems maintainers," Page said.