Over the next nine months Google Apps will replace SwatFiles and Zimbra as the open source server and messaging software at the college. This means that Swatmail will be compatible with Gmail and can be associated with Google-related applications like Google Docs or calendar. Swatmail will also be browsable alongside other Gmail accounts. Students, faculty, and staff will be able to view, share, and manage their files via the Google platform and will have direct access to Google-related services.
While the announcement was made this September, the motion to replace the old system actually began several years ago, when Swarthmore first established collaboration with Google. According to Joel Cooper, Swarthmore’s chief information technology officer, “Swarthmore signed a contract with Google several years back to establish the swarthmore.edu Google domain. Many other colleges and universities have done the same thing.”
“The Google Team is responsible for planning the migration; migrating email, calendar information, and files from our existing systems into Google Apps; working with departments as we migrate; developing and delivering training on Google Apps,” he explained.
The reason for moving past the old system, according to Seth Frisbie-Fulton, ITS technical support specialist, is its lack of technical support due to its age.
“The Xythos and Zimbra products have both changed corporate ownership several times since Swarthmore adopted them,” Frisbie-Fulton said. “Zimbra has been owned by Yahoo, VMWare, and current owner Telligent in the last six years. Updates and support for these products become scarce as they are phased out and change hands.”
Cooper offered a similar explanation. The company that developed Zimbra, according to Cooper, have ceased to provide update services, even when it is aware of clear technical errors.
“Again, this is a near end of life technology and we need to move away from it,” he added. “And, while Zimbra does a reliable job of providing email and calendaring, there are much more feature-rich ways of providing this service.”
Services provided by Google, in comparison, are much more robust and technologically up-to-date. As Frisbie-Fulton noted, Google has a much larger data capacity, both in Gmail and other services.
“The entire Google suite offers improved integration between services and collaboration options, such as: directly linking a large file in your Drive to an email, video chat and Google Hangouts, natively supported file types that can be opened within Drive even without the installed application on your computer, and simultaneous file editing by multiple collaborators in the Google Docs format.”
Students concur on the convenience brought about by the integration. Sonya Chen ’18 said that she likes how the new system facilitates cooperation among students. “Google files are collaborative, which is really useful for anything that requires more than one person working on a document.”
“Google doc sharing is an excellent tool,” Kayla Sembly ‘19 agreed. “I look forward to using more frequently as Gmail and Swatmail integrate. I think it will be especially useful for group projects.”
These positive responses seem to reflect the fact that many other schools have already adopted Google. According to Frisbie-Fulton, “ITS looked at a survey of schools in the Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges that are similar in size to Swarthmore. Out of the forty schools surveyed in 2013, thirty two were using Google for email. Swarthmore was one of the eight schools on the survey using Zimbra as an alternative.” Within the Quaker Consortium, Haverford already uses Gmail, while Bryn Mawr still uses Zimbra but plans to migrate by summer 2016. UPenn, due to its size, uses various email systems.
However, of the concerns regarding the integration, the issue of privacy seems to be the most prominent. Zachary Palmer, visiting assistant professor of computer science, ascribed the loss of data control as a major trade-off of platform migration. “On the one hand, contracting these services can often save resources and provide a wider variety of tools and features, since the cost of developing and maintaining the service can be amortized by the provider (in this case, Google). On the other hand, there is a cost to allowing a third party to provide these services: we are no longer fully in control of the data that the service manages and we are dependent upon the provider to continue providing the service.”
Cooper agreed. “One of the key challenges in moving files to Google is to ensure that confidential documents remain confidential after we migrate them,” he said. “The Google Team has gone through great lengths to make sure that this is the case and will review each department’s data and security before the migration and checking afterward. The Google contract with Swarthmore ensures FERPA and HIPAA compliance — the highest level of security and privacy — for information Swarthmore stores on Google’s servers, so we’re working with a solid technology platform.”
According to Cooper, there seems to be little reason to not switch to Google in light of technical challenges. “[The old system] will be going away, but it’s ok and [it is] being replaced by much better tools,” Cooper said. “Honestly, a good number of Swarthmore students already have personal Gmail accounts and are using various Google Apps already, so I don’t think this is going to be a big stretch.”
To get started, ITS will provide free trainings to facilitate the transition.
“The training resources ITS is putting together will help with a lot of these start-up issues,” Cooper said. “We’ll do training sessions, [and] there will be some Swarthmore-specific online documentation, Lynda.com videos, and lots of Google-provided documentation on how things work and how to set up your working environment.”
As an effort to ease the transition, the ITS Google Team invites relevant suggestions about the process from the Swarthmore community.