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In Defense of the Computing Center

The Feb. 15 Ol’ Dirty has an article about the University’s decision not to outsource email services to Google. The argument posed by Junior Mike McNeeley is that the University should’ve accepted Google’s offer of hosting because Gmail’s interface is far superior to the University’s own web-based email client. As far as the interface is concerned, McNeeley’s absolutely right: The Gmail interface is wonderful. It’s superior to any other commercial offering in terms of speed and ease of use, and once you’ve become accustomed to it, one can barely stand using another web client. As McNeeley points out, it’s far superior to AlphaMail and the horrible, horrible production client the University uses. But that’s only a part of the story.

Computing Center Director Joe St. Sauver gives a good reason that this move wasn’t made (such outsourcing would conflict with University policy,) but the technical reasons to not make a switch were either not given or not reported on. So, I’d like to give some additional reasons why it’s good such a switch wasn’t made (warning: geekspeak follows):

  • While web email interfaces are important to have, most sensible users have a real email application on their computers like Outlook Express, Outlook, or Thunderbird. These applications are snappier and more flexible than even Gmail’s interface. But they’re only as good as the servers they’re connected to, and there are basically two common methods email applications can use to retrieve messages: POP3 and IMAP. Gmail only offers POP3 access, the University offers both.
    • POP3 is a simple retrieval system that is widely supported but severely outdated. Mail is intended to be stored on the client (your computer) rather than on the server. You cannot organize the mailbox into directories on the server: all changes are made on the local computer.
    • IMAP is an advanced way of storing both email and files in a directory structure. Mail is intended to be kept on the server, ensuring that you can access it no matter which email client you’re using or where you’re accessing it from. This means that if you’re someone crazy like me you can access your mailbox from different computers at home, work, or school and have the directory structure and unread state of individual messages perfectly preserved. It’s simply better.
  • If Gmail were adopted, who would users contact if things went wrong? As it is, the Computing Center can solve any University-related problem… when they don’t, at least you know who to direct your nerdrage at. If your mailbox stopped working, you’d have to go through the Computing Center who would then go through Google. And Google may make great interfaces, but their support is notoriously meager.
  • Google’s offer would have essentially made the University’s email system a testbed for a more universal system that they plan on implementing in the future. The University’s email system, on the other hand, is extremely well-tested and, despite the occasional problem, very reliable. Considering how many important emails are sent around campus nowadays, it would be horribly irresponsible to move to a new system in flux.
  • Finally, you can already have your campus mail forwarded to a Gmail account, thus enabling to use the Gmail interface for campus mail. (Kudos to the ODE for pointing this out in the article.) You can even send mail through Gmail and use a non From: address (like In other words, you can already have every benefit that one might receive from a campus-wide switch without any of the pitfalls.

I could really go into more detail here, but this is waaay too long already.

  1. IMAP is a brilliantly stupid idea. Let me explain the brilliance of its stupidity.

    IMAP will conveniently take your email from a locally hosted dinosaur system to a network centric system. This means that (as previously mentioned) if you have not set your IMAP settings to retain emails locally as well you will have nothing when the network connectivity goes down.

    “Well I am not a stoodge, and I maintain local copies, so now what smart ass!”

    BRILLIANT!! You are absolutely Brilliant, now try porting over your imap emails (without connectivity) to another imap account, or pop account. It wont hold, even when you do an outlook backup (or if your truly stupid and use thunderbird, you have no backup option). All in all, IMAP will be a perfect solution for the future, when the government requires all of us to report our whereabouts 24/7 with some space age digital location device that is always connected, always pining our location, and has our bloodline email too.

    OH SNAP!! I forgot, we alreadyt invented the cellphone!

    I prefer to keep my mail off the web, call me a dinosaur. Instead I leave messages on server with pop, and create folder sorting rules in my webmail. Takes a little longer (i wish there was a universal approval rule exportabnle to .csv and importable to anywhere).

    My argruements may be weak, but the reality is that IMAP becomes a hostile baby when it cannot gain access to web. So in a world of perfect connectivity it is wunderbar, otherwise it is wundershit.

    Great solution that is brilliantly annoying.

  2. Andy says:

    omg who gives a shit! lol

  3. Michael G. says:

    I hate IMAP. Now I will explain why:

    With IMAP, you trust someone else to hold onto your mail. You trust someone else not to lose your mail. You trust someone not to read your mail.

    Would you leave your standard dead tree mail to be held with your local mailman? I think not.

    If the mail server is down and you aren’t maintaining local copies, you can’t read *any* of your mail, not just the mail you haven’t read.

    Of course, I have the technical ability to run my own server and access my email from anywhere in the wold anyway…

  4. ian says:

    Very zen.


    Google has PLENTY of space to give away.

    Making the contents publicly accessible is another story.

    Google offers no web-accessible space and the upper limit for each email is 10mb. Scott has a point here. But the key isn’t the amount of space offered, it’s about the amount of bandwidth allowed. And for the UO, it’s essentially unlimited.

  5. Timbo says:

    From the bottom of my gmail account:

    “You are currently using 26 MB (1%) of your 2695 MB.”

    Google has PLENTY of space to give away.

    Making the contents publicly accessible is another story.

  6. scott says:

    uo email accounts have some benefits that gmail currently does not such as

    – in Alphamail: the “send large file” up to 210 megs and “space usage” statistics
    – the ability to use your 500 meg account for web based storage and web pages. (this is something google will probably never do because there is no benefit to giving away 500 megs of online space)

    plus considering the investment uo has made to server equipment over time, the loss of at least a few jobs, the loss of experts at an educational institution, and the fact just had the Alphamail interface built from scratch in the last year or so, i don’t think they want to get rid of it.

  7. Timbo says:

    “It’s simply better. It’s like having”

    Very zen.

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