Click here to view a video demo of Zimbra, Cal Poly’s future e-mail client.

As Cal Poly’s five-year contract with Oracle comes to an end in September, students can expect a new campus e-mail client before the end of 2008.
Cal Poly Information Technology Services announced Tuesday that the new system, based on the Zimbra Collaboration Suite, will be reliable, include collaboration tools, reduce costs and provide more storage.

The current e-mail system, part of the Oracle Collaboration Suite, has received a great deal of criticism in the past few years for being slow, inundated with spam and prone to being unavailable at any moment.

Ultimately, it has caused approximately two-thirds of the student population to forward their Cal Poly e-mail account to offsite locations, such as Gmail or Yahoo! Mail, said Linda Sandy, information services infrastructure director at ITS.

To reduce the headaches and frustrations that Oracle had caused many students, ITS started to look for a new collaboration suite two years ago.

“One of the primary considerations has been to improve the reliability of the system and reduce the complexity for us to manage it,” said Vice Provost/CIO of ITS Tim Kearns.

Kearns added that Zimbra will make it easier for ITS to fix and maintain the e-mail system.

Although Oracle became more reliable in 2007, students and faculty still wanted more, namely more functionality and collaboration tools.

By implementing Zimbra at Cal Poly, ITS hopes to provide just that: the ability to share information, such as calendars, address books, documents and various other content among both students and faculty.

“One of the key things is that it’s something that will meet both students and faculty needs and allow them to work together,” Kearns said.

Kearns added that another consideration when looking for a new collaboration suite was that everyone would be able to use the system, including those with disabilities who may not be able to see the screen. Zimbra, he said, does just that.

Zimbra is also compatible with Apple Mail and Microsoft Outlook for faculty and students who want to share contacts, calendars and e-mail through those clients.

ITS learned about Zimbra by looking at what other universities were using. They also considered both Google and Microsoft’s e-mail and calendar services offered to students.

They discovered that Zimbra is a more cost-efficient option than Oracle as well. Kearns noted, however, that cost was not a primary reason to make the switch but rather a benefit. He also said it’s hard to compute the actual cost difference as different hardware configurations will eventually become a factor in addition to the Zimbra software.

“We expect to achieve some savings, but it’s hard to give a good estimate,” Kearns said.

Zimbra is also compatible with several mobile devices that have HTML- and Java- enabled browsers, such as a BlackBerry or a device with Windows Mobile.

Students who don’t prefer the new system will still have the option of forwarding their Cal Poly e-mail to offsite clients, such as Gmail.

Zimbra is used by more than 300 schools across the country, including Stanford University, Texas A&M, Georgia Tech and others.

“One thing we are doing is working with other universities who have migrated to Zimbra to find out what problems they have had so we can avoid running into the same issues,” Kearns said.

Implementing Zimbra at Eastern Illinois University saved the school more than $700,000.

According to the Eastern Illinois University campus newspaper, the school’s ITS department had problems when first setting up the system. Students and faculty later complained about the system being too slow, forcing the school to offer a version with less features to maximize speed.

ITS plans to release Zimbra in its initial phase with all of its features and 250 megabytes of storage for e-mail, calendar and documents, Sandy said. ITS will then monitor how rapidly that space is used and expand from there.

Eastern Illinois University students can also keep their campus e-mail accounts for their entire lives with the Zimbra system. Cal Poly is not considering that option at this time, but Sandy did note that ITS is working with the Cal Poly Alumni Association to see if this is a service that should be provided.

The Zimbra Collaboration Suite’s source code is available to everyone under the Yahoo! Public License, allowing ITS to integrate open standards easier into their environment.

“Also, a lot of universities have chosen Zimbra, so there’s going to be a community of users,” Kearns said. “That bodes well for the future in terms of support and capabilities that the system will have.”

ITS will try to have all Cal Poly students migrated to the Zimbra Collaboration Suite by fall 2008. Because faculty and staff will not transfer to Zimbra until after fall, ITS may renegotiate with Oracle to extend the contract, officials said.

As five years of trials and tribulations with Oracle come to an end, Sandy and Kearns discussed what went wrong as time progressed.

“Oracle’s application did not evolve as quickly as the newer (collaboration suites) that were coming out,” Sandy said. “So, basically, five years ago you had not as many collaboration suites out there as you do now . and in that timeframe they have all taken advantage of newer technologies that help them get their products out faster.”

Kearns agreed and added that Oracle was still a good choice in that it had all of the features they wanted at the time.

“What we didn’t anticipate were the reliability problems that we were going to have and how difficult it was going to be for us to manage,” he said. “Since then the technology has improved tremendously, and there are products out there, Zimbra being one, that we think are a much better match for Cal Poly’s needs.”

Last week, ITS signed a contract with Zimbra for only three years to avoid falling into the same trapped situation they had with Oracle.

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