2009 was the year in which GroupWise, as an email solution for UCT, came under tremendous scrutiny.
In March, Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS) implemented a System and Service Announcements section on its website, and to date more than 170 messages have been posted relating to issues with GroupWise. Toward the end of last year, Novell became actively involved in trying to address some of the ongoing problems we were experiencing; to their credit, many of the issues identified have now been resolved to the extent that no 'System and Service Announcements' relating to GroupWise have been posted since the first week of December.
At the height of the pain we were all experiencing, the University Information and Communication Technology Committee (UICTC) constituted an Email Working Group to make recommendations, among other duties, as to what the long-term solution could be for email at UCT. Remember, however, that GroupWise is more than simply an email system. It is an integrated collaboration and productivity suite providing such functionality as email, messaging, calendaring, etc. Therefore, any long-term solution must cater for all of these aspects of our activities.
Although there is a feeling among many that GroupWise should be summarily replaced, it is important that a careful analysis be undertaken to determine the best way forward. An investigation of this nature is also timely. Technology evolves at a rapid pace and the determining factors that initially made GroupWise an attractive solution (notably its cross-platform support) may have been superseded as our operations have evolved in an increasingly technologically-interconnected world.
Another factor that may play a role in increasing our options is the fact that by the middle of the year, UCT will have full access to our share of the SEACOM internet bandwidth. Not many of us can really appreciate what this will mean, but if you used the internet during January, you would have experienced the benefit of a 'bit' more (now a total of 80 Mbps) bandwidth that ICTS has added to our service. This is just a drop compared to what we will have access to once we are fully linked into the South African National Research Network (SANReN), and then (via SEACOM) to the rest of the world.
A preliminary investigation revealed that there are three high-level options available to us. Firstly, ICTS could continue to provide UCT's email and calendaring solution. Secondly, UCT could elect to outsource the provision of this solution. Thirdly, UCT could look internationally, and make use of the emergence of 'cloud' computing services.
The internal solution
ICTS currently has a well-developed infrastructure, with the capacity to support our email and calendaring requirements. Just because GroupWise has been having ongoing problems does not necessarily imply that ICTS is not able to provide this service. Indeed, a number of the issues we were experiencing were also being experienced by other GroupWise installations across the world. It could be that another enterprise email and calendaring solution (such as Microsoft's Exchange, for example) could replace GroupWise on campus, and provide the functionality and stability we all desire.
One of the significant costs associated with any enterprise-level software is that of the maintenance of the platform that provides the service. Significant time and energy has been invested by ICTS in trying to ensure that UCT has a stable email and calendaring service – at significant cost. A possible solution could be the outsourcing of the back-end systems that provide this service. UCT would enter into a service-level agreement with a commercial provider who would then take on the responsibility of ensuring a specific level of availability at all times. With this solution we could still elect which enterprise solution to use – possibly even GroupWise, should that turn out to be the agreed way forward.
An ever increasing array of services is available for use on the internet. Typically, these services are provided by applications that run on computers somewhere else in the world. The point is that it really doesn't matter where these computers are located, as you access and work with them through the internet. Google's Gmail is a classic example of this concept – the application, together with your email and associated storage space, is hosted on a supercomputer on the 'cloud', somewhere in cyberspace. Google also has a full office suite that is available in this way. Not to be outdone by Google, Microsoft also has email accessible in this way, and later this year, Word and Excel will be available 'on the cloud'. In essence, your computer becomes a souped-up dumb terminal that you use to operate 'your' programs remotely. A clear advantage of this scenario is that your data and services are available anywhere you can log onto the internet – and through whichever device you elect to use. Both Google and Microsoft now have fully comprehensive solutions for academic institutions such as ours.
Each of these options has strengths and weaknesses associated with them. For example, having a professional company take over email and calendaring from ICTS through an outsourcing agreement will be tremendously costly, while moving to the cloud raises data security concerns. The Email Working Group is drawing on a number of sources in trying to determine the best way forward. One of our team recently visited a number of US universities that have had to make similar decisions; we have engaged extensively with experts from Gartner, the world's leading information technology research and advisory company; and we have taken legal advice relating to potential data privacy and intellectual property (IP) issues.
At our most recent meeting in January, it became clear that moving our email and calendaring to the cloud has a number of very attractive benefits. In order to find out more about the practicalities associated with this course of action, we will shortly be holding meetings with representatives from both Microsoft and Google, as well as with other local academic institutions who have recently moved their student email to the cloud.
At the same time, we would welcome comment from the UCT community on the future of email and calendaring at UCT. To this end, we will be engaging with the academics' and employees' unions, the Students' Representative Council, and faculties via their faculty-based ICT Committees. We also invite you to contact us directly on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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