Outsourcing email and data storage case studies

The JISC published four case studies on Friday concerned with ‘outsourcing email and data storage’. They are quick reads and straight to the point. Pulling together all the ‘Lessons Learned’, we are told the following:

  • Handle the beta mentality – expect things to change, ask not how you can control change but how will you respond to it.
  • Web 2.0 is as much an attitude as any technical standard.
  • Ensure that your contractual and procurement processes allow for the provision of a free service. They may be designed for a traditional system of tendering with providers bidding to provide the service, and may not cope with a bidding system based on a ‘free’ service.
  • Ensure that students and staff are aware of the reasons behind the change.
  • Who is a student and who is a member of staff? If you have a high proportion of graduates who undertake various jobs and duties for the University, will they need a staff or a student email account, or both?
  • What emails and data do you need to keep private and confidential?
  • Are you aware of the jurisdiction that any external third party servers are under?

Useful observations. For me though, what the reports didn’t address was why each university was providing an email address to students in the first place. Isn’t the issue less about ’email and data storage’ and more about having a trusted and portable university identity? Providing a GMail or Windows Live hosted account still doesn’t guarantee that the majority of students would use that email address as their primary address (prior to outsourcing at the University of Westminster, “96% of students did not use the University email system”). I’m assuming that the new, third-party managed email addresses are still *.ac.uk accounts – this wasn’t clear to me from the reports. Having a *.ac.uk account is useful, primarily for online identification purposes.

Personally, I think that the benefit of having Google or Microsoft manage a trusted university identity for students, is not the email service itself (yet another address that students wouldn’t necessarily use for messaging), but the additional services that Google provide such as their online office apps, instant messaging, news reader (all accessible from mobiles) and, most importantly, the trusted identity that is used across and beyond those value-added services. Furthermore, as both Google and Microsoft embrace OpenID, that trusted identity will assume even greater ‘value’ beyond their own web services. Email addresses are well established forms of online identity and most people are happy to have that identity managed by a third-party.

I like the URI approach that OpenID currently uses although I think that adoption will be slow if users can’t alternatively use their email address (i.e. johnsmith@gmail.com, rather than http://johnsmith.id.google.com or whatever Google settles on). Some services do allow that option using Email Address to URL Translation, which highlights the value of having an email address, not for the communication of messages but for the communication of one’s identity.

Anyone with any thoughts on this? It’s pretty simple to get a message across these days but harder to manage our online identities.

Life on a stick

Last week, I installed the latest Fedora (Red Hat) Linux operating system on a 2GB USB stick. The installation instructions were clear and, using a fast USB stick and PC, runs very well. There’s a nice Windows application that installs Fedora with just a few clicks. I use Ubuntu Linux at home and this was a nice way to try out Fedora and also carry around an entire Operating System with my preferred applications for use whenever I have access to a computer.

I’ve also run PortableApps from a USB stick. This allows me to run applications I use at home, such as Firefox and Pidgin, which are not available on the corporate desktop. The applications run isolated on the USB stick and all settings and cached data is preserved and taken away when you unplug it. The applications run well and look and feel like an application installed on the PC. Only certain applications have been ‘ported’ to Portableapps, but there’s a good selection.

I mention these two experiences because they’re examples of how individuals can continue to personalise their learning or working environments in situations where the computing environment on offer is necessarily restricted for security or support reasons. As software is increasingly running on the web, accessible from any browser, and as we continue to use computers in all aspects of life, whether at home, on the move or at work, there’s an expectation that our personal choices of preferred web browser, preferred IM client, our bookmarks, settings, saved passwords, etc. should continue to be available to us both inside and outside of institutions. JISC’s ‘In Their Own Words‘ report confirms this and apparently some employers are also acknowledging it by allowing staff to purchase their own PC equipment. It says a lot about our relationships with computer hardware and software. Not all technology has this effect on us. I’m still happy to use the work provided fridge and toaster although if I were using them constantly throughout the day, I may begin to object…

Do you wish your personalised computing environment was available to you whenever you turned on a PC?