OCS successor to be unveiled in February

By Amy Ledig

After three years of difficulties Macalester plans to phase out its current email server, Oracle Collaboration Suite, for a replacement that will be formally announced in February, Michael Nelson of ITS said.In the past few years OCS has gained notoriety for its frequent outages, problems delivering and receiving mail, poor search function and generally frustrating interface. Students complain, ITS staff is overwhelmed with repairs and there’s even a Facebook group titled “I don’t need no lover, OCS goes down on me every night-we’re talking hours!”

“Overall, it seems like OCS was not designed with people in mind,” Josh Schukman ’08 said.

But the end is now on the horizon. The ITS Email Workgroup recently finished evaluation of the products under consideration with the help of approximately 40 campus volunteers last week, and is now considering potential solutions to overcome OCS’ shortcoming.

“The email workgroup will now start to evaluate campus needs, learn from the four product evaluations, and talk with key members of the campus community,” Nelson said.

According to an MCSG survey earlier this semester, 66% of respondents use OCS mail as their primary email.

“One thing they are worried about is campus pushback,” said MCSG President Franz Meyer ’09, explaining the lengthy process the Email Workgroup has gone through in their quest to find a new system. “Most people use OCS as their primary email because it’s easy, which is why it’s such a big deal to switch and it’s such a big deal when it goes down.”

The Email Workshop is now examining Google Applications for Education (Google Apps), Zimbra Collaboration Suite, Mirapoint, and Novell GroupWise as potential new email servers. It will consider each option on a seven-part criterion, which takes account security and privacy, cost, a rich feature set, usability, peer-institution adoption, system integration, and reliability, all into account, Nelson said.

Nelson described Mirapoint and Novell as “enterprise-level workhorses,” while Google Apps and Zimbre are “new on the scene” and working towards reaching enterprise level.

It seems, though, that almost anything would be an improvement. “OCS sets the bar pretty low,” laughed Nelson. “We want a reliable system that meets out needs and our needs are mail delivery, mail delivered at a reasonable time. We need a system that’s accessible from anywhere [and stays up].”

Aside from OCS’ functionality issues, it is expensive. The college pays $15,000 in maintenance each year, said Nelson, adding that the college “can’t quantify staff time – it’s huge, way more than we should be spending.”

All four options would see email maintenance outsourced, something Meyer sees as a good thing. He said that Macalester has a high student to staff ratio and that outsourcing e-mail would make sense.

“ITS is understaffed so if it can free up people from dealing with email junk, that’s better for the campus,” he said.

Google Apps has received the most buzz around campus. It would include Google’s popular Gmail email service, Google Calendar, and Google Docs, which allows users to share documents easily. One benefit of the system is that it would not cost the college anything. Nelson stressed, however, that despite appearances, it wasn’t actually free.

Gmail gets its revenue from ads. Nelson said that the ads would be disabled for those using their email on campus. After graduating, the program would allow the college to provide a Macalester Gmail account to alumni for life, but ads would be included.

While the college does not have figures for the number of students who use a separate program to access the OCS mail, Gmail is popular as a companion to or replacement for OCS, and users are positive about a change.

“In general, Gmail functions a lot better than OCS ever has. The major frustration that everyone has with OCS -its tendency to fail at the worst moments -would not be a problem with G-mail,” Will Howell ’08 said.

“If we go to Google Applications for Education, Google will make Gmail junkies out of us,” said Nelson, adding that students would grow comfortable with Gmail and, “when you leave here after four years, when you get out into the business world, you’ll continue to use it.”

Nelson cited concerns of security as a cause for delay. “All four programs could be outsourced. When they are outsourced, there’re questions of safety and security. People are concerned about security, we all should be.”

Nelson added that there are varying levels of comfort with Google scanning people’s email to personalize advertising, and that the committee needs to “understand people’s feelings about email and take them into consideration.”

Nonetheless, for many students, the change is overdue. Even though OCS only replaced Mulberry, it’s predecessor, three years ago, most are ready for a new system that will hopefully be an improvement.

“At this point I feel like anything is better than OCS,” Chelsea Park ’10 said.