Looking to the cloud
By Marilyn Smulders - February 9, 2011
Do you spend time ridding your inbox of old emails each week? Have you ever expected an email—been told it’s on its way—and it arrives 12 hours later? Remember the big email crash of 2008?
State of the art in 1990, Dal’s aging communications infrastructure is no longer adequate to address the needs of students, staff and faculty. In fact, because of limited capacity and functionality, there is not just one outdated system at Dal, but 15 independent systems currently in use across campus.
With their smartphones, laptops, tablets and gigabytes of storage, students have better, more responsive tools than what can be found in any office on campus.
Updating the old system would require an infusion of millions of dollars, says Dwight Fischer, assistant vice president, Information Technology Services, unless a solution could be found “in the cloud.”
“Cloud computing” is a general term for anything that involves delivering hosted services over the Internet. The idea is that Dalhousie could look to companies such as Google and Microsoft to centralize email services, host a common calendar, improve emergency messaging and respond to the surging demand for greater mobility all for no or little cost. The giant Internet companies have been offering their services for free to universities and colleges around the world.
“If we were in the cloud, with high capacity solutions, the things that irritate us now, like having to delete messages in your inbox or waiting on IT support, would just go away,” says Mr. Fischer. The changeover wouldn’t even involve a change to dal.ca email addresses; the domain name would remain the same.
Other universities across Canada are currently looking to the cloud for similar solutions. The University of Alberta is among the first to make the leap skyward, entering into an agreement with Google to host its email services. Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario has also made the switch. The University of Toronto and University of New Brunswick are examining their options.
“We have to ask ourselves what is the responsible thing to do?” asks Mr. Fischer, in light of limited resources and belt-tightening. “Should we be spending millions of dollars on our own email system when one is available for free?”
'Like sending a postcard'
So, getting more for less ... what’s the hitch? Mr. Fischer acknowledges hosting services in the cloud—or rather on a server somewhere in the United States—raises privacy concerns. But, he adds, is our communication private now? With many people forwarding their dal.ca emails to their Gmail or Hotmail accounts and falling prey to ingenious phishing attempts, the perception of privacy is deceiving.
“That fact is, even if we host and fund a solution in-house, email can no longer be regarded as secure or private ... when you send an email, it’s like sending a postcard.”
Moving forward, proposals for a communications and productivity platform have been invited and review committee assembled to review proposals and solicit feedback. Potential solutions may comprise one system for everyone, or one option tailored to students and alumni, another for faculty and staff. Dal’s senior administrative team will make the final decision later this year.
For those who’d like to add their input to the process, you can take part in an online survey. Or, add a comment to the story.