Gmail forum outlines faculty/staff pilot, answers questions

This week's open forum on the upcoming Gmail pilot for faculty and staff was a good place to discuss the pilot, offer feedback, and ask questions about the possibility of switching the central campus email service from Cyrus to Gmail.

The "Next Generation Email--a Gmail Pilot for Faculty and Staff" forum was hosted by the Campus Council for Information Technology (CCFIT) in Ballroom B of the ARC on Feb. 17. Information and Educational Technology, which operates the central email service and is conducting the Gmail pilot, was represented by Vice Provost Pete Siegel, Data Center and Client Services Director Morna Mellor, and Gmail Pilot Project Manager Gabe Youtsey, among others.

About 55 faculty and staff attended the forum. Approximately 12,000 faculty and staff email accounts use Cyrus; the rest use alternatives.

"The main goal today is to get your questions answered," Professor Joe Kiskis, chair of CCFIT, told the audience. "There has been no decision to make, or not to make, a change to Gmail. CCFIT wants all voices heard, and wants an accurate depiction of what the advantages and disadvantages will be."

As context, Siegel explained that IET is studying options for providing, and potentially enhancing, the features and capabilities that faculty and staff need from campus email services. He recapped the DavisMail pilot in 2008, and also discussed two other options for email now being explored: a review of unified email and calendaring options, such as the campus "Xeda" Exchange service, in which IET is working with Administrative Resource Management, Student Affairs, the Administrative Process Review Initiative led by Stan Nosek, and academic units; and a UC-wide Email Task Force, chaired by Mike Minear, chief information officer of the UC Davis Health System.

"We're looking [at Gmail] because it's an innovative technology, " Siegel said. "For some faculty, it's very exciting" because of the easier interaction with UC Davis students--whose DavisMail service runs on Gmail--and because of Google Apps, a related set of communication tools. Cyrus is fine for now, but would need upgrades the campus might not choose to pay for.

Gmail's features, and the fact that students already use it, make it a logical choice for a pilot tryout by UC Davis faculty and staff. Many have Gmail accounts on their own.

"Google has been enormously engaged and responsive with UC Davis," Siegel said. Still, he added, "we understand that going to Gmail has some risks. One of the goals of this meeting is, we want to make sure we have the issues identified and addressed."

This Gmail pilot involves only Cyrus users, Mellor said, and looks at Gmail as an email service. "We're not focusing on the apps, but we'll ask for feedback as people use them," she said.

Cyrus is bare-bones email while Exchange has lots of features, Mellor said, and comparing them would not be fair.

Youtsey said the pilot will assess Gmail's functional and technical fit, get feedback from participants, offer a preliminary assessment of Google Apps, assess security, privacy and policy-related issues, and inform the decision to proceed with Gmail or not.

The pilot starts in late February and will run eight weeks. The findings will be vetted in late May, he said, and widely shared on campus. The council will send a recommendation on Gmail for faculty and staff to Siegel. Questions, answers and other information will be posted to the pilot's Web site. The slides and program from the open forum are available on the main page of the CCFIT site.

Several campus groups have been consulted on the plans for the pilot, including CCFIT, the Council of Deans and V ice Chancellors, the Academic Senate, the Deans Technology Council, and the Technology Infrastructure Forum. A pilot advisory committee will be formed, and an administrative system review (PPM 200-45) is planned. IET, after wide consultations, will decide how to proceed after the pilot ends.

The Q&A session occupied the final third of the 90-minute forum. About 30 questions were asked.

Some people asked if IET is considering other options, and whether those alternatives would get a pilot. Different possibilities exist, including Microsoft, Zimbra and others, Youtsey said. No pilots involving them are planned.

"For this kind of in-depth pilot," Siegel said, "we can really only do one at a time." If the campus decides after the pilot that it does not want Gmail for faculty and staff, the campus could look more thoroughly at alternatives.

Several questions addressed privacy and security. Siegel said Google would have to meet UC Davis standards, and if Google allowed a breach, the company would be responsible. Also, the campus would not release a tool in Google Apps for campus use unless that tool also met UC Davis privacy and security standards.

Siegel emphasized that IET "will keep the ability to rebuild a Davis service within six months if we need to, or go to an alternative vendor" if Google falls out of favor with the campus. "We will maintain the intellectual capability to go to an alternative."

Others asked about savings. Moving to Google, which would not charge for the service, would save the campus at least $100,000 per year in licensing, storage and other costs, plus avoid a considerably larger expense that will be required if the central service stays on Cyrus.

How would the shift to Gmail affect faculty whose email services are run by their departments? "There would be essentially no impact," Siegel said. "Local systems are not affected."

How would a user retrieve old emails? "Same as now," Siegel said, "but you're less likely to delete email because you have capacity." Gmail offers 7 gigabytes of mail storage, more than 100 times larger than Cyrus offers.

Twenty-five of the 55 people who attended the forum filed comments sheets as they left. Twenty-three said the forum was useful or very useful.

Find more information and other questions on the Gmail pilot page page, which will add information as the pilot gets underway.

The pilot group encourages questions and comments about the pilot: please send emails to Contact that same address to sign up for the pilot.