Lakehead University’s conversion to Google Apps for Education turned out to be a bit more of a challenge than its IT staff had expected — something that had nothing to do with the new application suite itself.

The university in Thunder Bay, Ont., knew it needed a new e-mail system and had spent several months looking at alternatives before settling on the online application suite from Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc.

It was almost time to proceed with the conversion when, on Nov. 26, the switchover suddenly got a lot more urgent. Lakehead’s mail server crashed that day, and “when it came back up, it didn’t come back up to its original state,” said Shahzad Jafri, the university’s chief information officer and director of its Technology Services Centre.

Jafri decided to push ahead with the conversion as fast as possible. He said Lakehead switched over 38,000 e-mail accounts to Google Gmail in three days, with almost no interruption to service.

Getting the job done that quickly took some extra effort. Jafri reassigned many IT employees to temporary duties, moving staff from the network group to the server group and assigning extra people to work the phones and answer users’ questions.

“My whole organizational structure fundamentally changed to a different version for two weeks straight,” Jafri recalled. “My team was working full out.”

A project Web site was put up on the first day of the conversion to keep users informed, he said.

Google also helped out with some extra customer support during the high-pressure changeover, though Kevin Gogh, enterprise product manager at Google, said there was “nothing that (reached) extraordinary levels.”

Besides replacing Lakehead’s tottery old e-mail system, the conversion brought some added benefits. Because it is getting the whole suite for no charge and it is entirely hosted by Google rather than on university hardware, the university expects to save $2 million to $3 million a year on maintenance and about $6 million annually on infrastructure.

And, Jafri said, students, staff and faculty now get 2GB each of storage space, versus 60MB with the old system. In addition, he expects Google to deliver 99 per cent availability. “It’s very hard for us to get to that level of availability.” 

Now fully operational on Gmail, Lakehead still has some work to do on other aspects of the conversion. This month, the university will be converting from an ageing in-house calendaring system to the Web calendaring facility included in Google Apps.

The suite also includes a Web chat capability, and the company will probably add other features, Gogh said. “Our goal with Google Apps for Education is to provide a very rich set of communication tools.” 

Lakehead’s is the first campus-wide implementation of Google Apps for Education in Canada. Arizona State University has a similar sized deployment, Gogh said. 

The suite has been available free of charge under a beta program since late summer, he said, and universities and colleges that adopt it during that beta period will never have to pay. 

As is Google’s practice, the company has not said when the beta period will end, but Gogh said the company is working on a “premium version” of Google Apps for Education for which there will be a charge. 

As with most of its products, Google includes text-based advertising in Google Apps for Education. “If universities have issues with that,” he said, “we can work through that with them.”


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