Google may run Yale e-mail

Yale’s Horde e-mail system may be on its way out within the next month — and Google may take its place.

Yale Information Technology Services, the Provost’s Office and about a dozen members of a specially appointed advisory committee are nearing a decision on whether to outsource the University’s e-mail service to a web-based mail provider such as Gmail. ITS Director Philip Long recommended that Yale change to Google Apps for Education Suite last winter, but Provost Peter Salovey deferred to an advisory committee after community members raised security concerns. Both Long and committee chair Julie Dorsey, a professor of computer science, said they support using the Google Apps for Education Suite — which included the popular Google Calendar, Docs, Talk and Sites applications — or a similar platform.

“We would love to have a firm decision and a signed contract within the next month,” Long said.

Dorsey said Salovey asked the committee to consider a number of different providers, including Microsoft, IBM and Google, when he appointed the group last April. Dorsey said several of the committee members have experimented with Google Apps, and the feedback has been generally positive.

Chuck Powell, senior director for academic media and technology, said any of the web-based services could work with Apple Mail and other e-mail clients. This is particularly important for faculty, he added, since professors use e-mail clients far often than they forward e-mail to webmail services such as Gmail — a practice followed by about half of all Yale students.

“The main advantage [of switching to Google as opposed to Microsoft] is that many of our students are already using Gmail,” Dorsey said.

Google has also been a lot quicker to innovate and bring new products to the market, Powell added, releasing new features about once a week. Microsoft, he said, has “taken a more traditional approach to product lifecycle” although it continually renames its mail client to “keep us on our toes.”

Regardless of which service is chosen, users will still be able forward Yale e-mail to outside addresses, Long said, although he added he expects fewer students to do so. The service will use the “@yale.edu” address, Long said, adding that he wants students and faculty to be able to keep their current NetID and password combinations. Yale is negotiating security measures to ensure that users are not “passing confidential information to Google or Microsoft,” he said.

“It’s an important part of the architecture that your credentials are kept at Yale,” Long said.

But computer science professor Michael Fischer said he is hesitant to have a third party control potentially “valuable” Yale data. Fischer gave the example of a student’s message to a faculty adviser containing research results as data the University needs to protect. He added that he thinks previous efforts to implement a private web-based e-mail service had been “rushed and secretive.”

Long said that Microsoft will guarantee that the University’s information is kept within the United States, but Google will not. Despite this, many schools — including Brown University and Harvard University’s education and architecture schools — have opted for Google services, Long said, so the problem is “solvable.”

Dorsey said she does not see any issues with Google’s privacy policies, adding that universities are greater targets for hackers instead of general web services. If a Yale e-mail address were compromised, she said, companies such as Comcast would not block all messages sent from Yale accounts because they would not block messages from a web service as prominent as Google’s.

Stanford University runs an open source service with Microsoft Exchange, Powell said, adding that all eight of the schools in the Ivy League are thinking about outsourcing.

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