Cal Poly’s Information Technology Services department used the Memorial Day weekend to inform students that the campus e-mail system was being inundated with spam e-mail at a rate that was above normal.
“We believe this week’s problem started with an abnormally high influx of spam to the campus,” the e-mail stated. “We will be changing how we handle e-mail delivery so we can better handle high-volume situations.”
Since signing a contract with technology giant Oracle, the Cal Poly e-mail service has come under criticism for being slow, unresponsive and prone to maintenance that suspends service. The weekend’s developments were just the newest chapter in the ongoing struggles.
In 2006, the entire system was shut down for days while ITS worked to solve system problems. Neither students nor faculty could access their Cal Poly e-mail accounts.
The growing dissatisfaction with Oracle has led at least one student to take matters into his own hands. Computer engineering junior Jon Wu interned at Google last summer and was pleased enough with the company’s services that he’s leading a campaign to get Cal Poly to switch from Oracle’s e-mail to Google’s.
“I’m not doing this because I work there,” Wu said. “I also think the e-mail sucks here.”
Wu is promoting his cause by encouraging students to take an online survey on Google’s Web site (google.com/studentsurvey). The poll asks students questions like “what would you like to change aout your school’s current e-mail system?,” “how satisfied are you with Gmail?” and “what’s the primary way that Gmail, Google Talk, and Google Calendar could be better than your school’s current systems?” To date, over 200 Cal Poly students have taken the survey, and of those 200, 92 percent indicate that they are “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the current system.
Wu doesn’t believe that most students on campus are even using the default e-mail interface Cal Poly provides, opting instead to have their e-mail forwarded to another service.
“It’s not just e-mail,” Wu said. Google’s educational technology suite also includes the ability to instant message contacts through the e-mail interface itself and access your inbox from mobile devices.
“If everyone had a (Gmail) account, it would be easy,” Wu said.
With only a year left on the contract with Oracle, Cal Poly is now giving serious consideration to switching systems when its time is up.
The Student Campus Computing Committee (SCCC), a student-run board that collects data and feedback on campus computing systems, and ITS have been brainstorming new possibilities.
Tony Guntermann is a mechanical engineering senior and head of the SCCC.
“Our function is to be a liaison between students and ITS,” he said. “There’s been some problems with Oracle. The reliability has been a problem in the past.”
The SCCC does a yearly survey for Cal Poly students and the results of the survey are then used to decide on how to improve technology services. This year, Guntermann said that the committee discovered students want to keep the “@calpoly.edu” address suffix for their e-mail, but would like to change interface systems to something that is more reliable.
Vice Provost Tim Kearns indicated that ITS has already narrowed down the choices for an e-mail system switch.
“We had a very bad performance for that one quarter (in 2006), so we’ve been looking at new e-mail systems ever since then,” he said.
Kearns said that ITS has two or three potential systems, but they’re not ruling out Oracle just yet.
“We’re just trying to evaluate (what) the best thing to do is because it’s a pretty big move,” he said. “It impacts the campus in a lot of ways to switch e-mail systems. One of the attractions of those systems is that they can provide a lot of features that it’s just hard to provide because we don’t have a large enough staff.”
One of the major factors in switching would be adding additional functionality to the e-mail system.
“I think everybody is disappointed,” Kearns said. “This year the reliability has been pretty good, so that concern has certainly gone down. I think a lot of people would like bigger e-mail quotas and more functionality in terms of collaboration tools and things. Right now we have one more year left on our contract. We might start our migration before the contract is over.”
Kearns specified that if an e-mail system switch occurs, it would be for students only. Cal Poly faculty and staff would remain on the same system they use currently. When asked if two e-mail systems could coexist at Cal Poly, Wu didn’t think it was possible.
“They could live side-by-side, but having two systems. is just confusing,” Wu said.
“The issue is that a lot of students are using other e-mails,” Kearns said. “We make it pretty easy, other campuses don’t, but we make it pretty easy to use Google or Yahoo or whatever e-mail system they want. People at Cal Poly use a wide range of different clients.”
One of the challenges facing ITS with such a large system restructuring would be making sure no data is lost. Existing e-mails people keep in their inbox would need to be moved and made compatible with whatever technology suite Cal Poly chooses to use.
“What we try to do is always minimize the difficulty,” Kearns said. “People who have a lot of mail stored on … the current mail system … need to move it to the new system. That is difficult, generally.”
If Cal Poly ends up choosing Google Apps or Education, the school would not be the first. Kearns said Google is pushing hard to get their technology suite spread around the nation to combat Microsoft.
Last fall, Arizona State University garnered a lot of publicity after signing on with Google for their student e-mail system, giving each of the 65,000 ASU students a two-gigabyte storage limit for their e-mail accounts. The new system allowed ASU e-mail addresses to keep the “asu.edu” suffix, but also provided them with Google’s calendar system and instant messaging interface, called Google Talk.
While Arizona State’s system switch to Google has been a success so far, Kearns said he’s not quite convinced of the survey Wu is pushing to Cal Poly.
“For my mind, it’s not targeted enough,” he said. “The questions aren’t really targeted very well. If you look at the responses, 85 percent of them are from students that are using Gmail already, so the sample isn’t really representative. It’s hard to really conclude anything for Cal Poly in terms of making a decision.”
Both Kearns and Guntermann emphasized that they are taking student feedback seriously. SCCC meetings are open for students to attend, and they are held every Tuesday in the Cotchett Education building, room 24.