Oakland University Overhauls Its E-mail System


E-mail may not have been around as long as traditional mail, but try communicating rapidly without e-mail in today's global village and you'll find yourself moving at a snail's pace. Colleges and universities have come to greatly depend on e-mail as a critical communications tool for research, teaching and day-to-day business operations. E-mail has become part and parcel of the mission for most modern educational institutions, from Ivy League schools to local community colleges.

Its use in higher education has grown exponentially over the years, and as enrollment continues to increase and business processes become more streamlined, e-mail is becoming more a necessity than a luxury. With education budgets continuing to suffer, universities are turning more to e-mail as a cost-reduction tool - saving them the high price of communicating with students and alumni using traditional paper mailings.

Capacity Limitations

As some universities outgrow their e-mail systems - suffering from capacity overload or experiencing service outages, hardware failures and security issues - others are discovering the benefits of upgrading or overhauling their systems. In March 2003, Oakland University made the transition to a new e-mail system, and things haven't been the same since. Problems of the past are now gone: poor performance, overtaxed system resources, antiquated user customization and unreliability among other problems.

With more than 16,000 students, Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., had outgrown its old system, which used core technology that had not been changed during the last eight years. The hardware included a Compaq AlphaServer DS20 mail server, a Sun Enterprise 450 Web server and a RAID Cobra3 storage system. The university's needs had outstripped the capabilities of this outdated architecture, which, designed in the early 1990s, was sufficient in its day. Some hardware and software upgrades over the years were made, but parts of the environment's technology, including file structures, still dated back more than 20 years.

Significant capacity limitations affected operations, including the number of e-mail accounts, the size of the accounts and the number of messages the system could process. A single storage system operated as the hub of the e-mail operation. Large mailboxes consumed system resources, which slowed down the entire system. Concurrently, heavy fragmentation of the mail storage pool added to the system's unreliability.

Downtime and other problems eventually caused havoc, leading up to the system experiencing a second full e-mail failure in October 2002, which resulted in the loss of all e-mail inboxes. This outage was the last straw, proving that something had to be done. A technical decision to upgrade was made within a month, and after approval by the state-appointed board of trustees in February 2003, a new system was installed in March.

User-Friendly System

The university's new system, provided by Mirapoint Inc. (www.mirapoint.com) and its reseller partner The Newman Group (www.newman.com), is faster and sleeker, provides more than three times the storage capacity - 144 GB of data compared to 40 GB on the old system - and has none of the problems associated with the university's former architecture. The new system also easily handles 28,000 clients with the ability to scale to a larger solution in the future. In addition, because security and authenticated use is a very real and important concern in the Oakland environment, virus protection, which was previously managed at the desktop, is now controlled at the e-mail gateway, with a directory services system included in the system.

Mirapoint's hardware is an e-mail appliance. This means that the device, which uses its own operating system, has been designed to be optimized for electronic mail. The system consists of three major pieces of hardware:

1. A system to provide e-mail delivery, access to e-mail (POP and IMAP), authentication and authorization;

2. A redundant disk storage device for storing incoming e-mail; and

3. A third system to provide Webmail access.

The redundant mail servers allow for protection against a failure or disaster. They also allow administrators to perform upgrades without major impact to end users.

Oakland University now expects minimal downtime, as the new system should be up nearly 100% of the time - a standard not met in the past. This uptime availability was achieved by building a message solution from the ground up. As before, students, faculty and administrators can still use any computing platform as well as all familiar desktop mail applications; though, Webmail will be noticeably different.

The new system is much more user-friendly. It offers access to spell check, junk-mail filtering and e-mail forwarding, which were not part of the old system. The new system is also compatible with most browsers, providing users with direct access to their e-mail inbox via a Web browser without an agent handling the access. This approach offers the ability to reduce the points of failure for accessing Webmail, which was an issue with our former system. In addition, the new system includes a "Get Mail" feature that fetches and downloads e-mail from other services such as Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail or AOL Mail. This ability allows students to centralize their message information and use Oakland's messaging services as the main gateway for their electronic communications.

A Growing Trend

With the new system, administrative tasks are handled using basic tools. For example, advanced scripting features provide reports and status that can enhance or customize the system to the university's needs, culture and identity. The new system, which is less expensive to run than the previous one, has won favor throughout the university. Students and faculty are discovering new ways to use the system as a research and study tool. They are also finding that it is far more dependable than ever.

Meanwhile, university officials are discovering its potential as a cost-saving tool. They are moving away from printing and mailing student bills; instead, choosing to e-mail bill announcements. These bill announcements direct students to a new e-billing system in which bills are presented and can be paid online. Officials are also following similar strategies for grade mailers and course scheduling announcements.

Now, e-mail is so well loved and relied upon that the university is moving toward delivering official communiqués electronically. They also are so confident in this system that they have instituted a new e-mail policy stating that official university communications will be sent via e-mail. With the move to upgrade its e-mail system, Oakland University has become part of a growing trend in higher education. In light of the rapidly expanding use of e-mail, wh'ever said "mail moves the country" might someday have to revisit that statement.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.