UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Time to Move to GMail?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 2 Mar 2011

The University of Bath email service is still down. The problems were first announced 0n Twitter at 06.02 on 24 February:

The University email is currently running at risk of failure we are working towards a fix – sorry for any disruption caused.

Later that day we heard:

University email will be unavailable for the rest of the day -for alternative use University Instant Messenger Jabber:

The problems continued the following day and so BUCS (the Bath University Computing Service) announced an interim email service: I can now send and receive email but can’t access any email messages which I received prior to 25 February.  I must adit that this provides a strange feeling of bliss (my email folder is almost empty!), but I  know that the actions which I’m now running behind on will come back to haunt me when the full email service is restored.

Of course communications have continued, particularly on Twitter. I’m pleased, incidentally, that BUCS have been using Twitter as a communications channel to keep their users informed of developments.  It has also occurred to me how I am still able to continue working using Twitter to support my professional activities: how, I wonder, are others at the University of Bath who don’t use Twitter coping?

During this outage, whilst away in London, I suggested that use of Google’s GMail service might be appropriate.  In response I received the ironical reply:

Gmail never breaks. Oh. Wait. :)

It seems that on the day Bath University email users were suffering as a consequence of hardware problems on its email servers Gmail was also having problems. As the PocketLint article rather dramatically announced:

Oh dear – looks like Google has dropped the bomb on hundreds of thousands of Gmail accounts, wiping out years of email and chat history.

You can’t trust GMail to provide a reliable email service seemed to be the sub-text of other Twitter followers who responded to my initial tweet.  But is that really the case? I have described the continuing problems with the BUCS email service (which are summaried in a BUCS FAQ). But what is the current status of GMail?

Whilst Computer Weekly has highlighted the problems of use of Web-based email services the CBC News has pointed out thatGmail messages [are] being restored after bug“.  The article described how  emails “are being restored to Gmail accounts temporarily emptied out two days ago”. This problem was either small-scale – “About 0.02 per cent of Gmail users had their accounts completely emptied“) or significant – “media outlets estimate there are roughly 190 million Gmail users, so about 38,000 were affected”. The problem, caused by a bug which has now been fixed, did not affect me whereas the BUCS email outage clearly has.  Which, I wonder, is the more significant problem?

I have to admit that I have been affected by outages in externally-hosted communications services previously. In September 2009  I wrote a post entitled “Skype, Two Years After Its Nightmare Weekend” which described how “Skype’s popular internet telephone service went down on August 16 [2007] and was unavailable for between two and three days“. This was also due to a software bug (related to MS Windows automated updates) which has been fixed – and I have continued to be a happy Skype user and agree with last year’s Guardian article which described “Why Skype has conquered the world”.

So yes there will be problems with externally-hosted systems, just as there will be problems with in-house systems (and ironically the day before the BUCS email system went down and two days before GMail suffered its problems my desktop PC died and I had to spend half a day setting up a new PC!). It may therefore be desirable to develop plans for coping with such problems – and note that a number of resources which provide advice on backing up GMail have been provided recently, including a Techspot article on “How to Backup your Gmail Account” and a Techland article on “How to backup GMail“.

But in addition to such technical problems there are also policy challenges which need to be considered. At the University of Bath email accounts are deleted when staff and students leave the institution (and for a colleague who retired recently the email account was deleted a day or so before she left). One’s GMail account, on the other hand, won’t be affected by changes in one’s place of study or employment.  In light of likely redundancies due to Government cutbacks isn’t it sensible to consider migration from an institutional email service?  And shouldn’t those who are working or studying for a short period avoid making use of an institutional email account which will have a limited life span?

22 Responses to “Time to Move to GMail?”

  1. Les Carr said

    Email, web and other information services are not core business for a university. You probably can’t get an SLA, and the service is probably provided under a “best effort, 9-5” kind of agreement. So you have over a week if missing email service because there is no spare, backup, or secondary systems in place to roll over to. Now is the time to find out whether your VC is feeling blissed out by the disappearance of the business context of his organisation (call it email and it sounds unimportant administrivia!) I hope this is being taken VERY seriously indeed.

    • Thanks for the comment. I should have said in my post that I feel that the BUCS team have responded well to this email outage problem. As I pointed out they have made use of Twitter to keep users informed of developments. The FAQ provides answers to the questions:

      When will the normal webmail be back up and running?
      All my past emails appear to have been deleted?
      Will the previously stored e-mails be available again once the system is working?
      I forwarded my Uni emails to a personal email account - what should I do now?
      I need an important email that was sent before the downtime can you restore this?
      I am expecting an important email from an external email address - will I receive this?
      I have important research data stored within the folders of my Bath e-mail account - can I access this?
      I seem to have removed my inbox by mistake?
      Is it safe to move files into my (now empty) folders until things are restored?

      I am also sure that once the problems are resolved BUCS will review their procedures and learnt from the incident (I’m also sure thay will share these experiences with other IT Service departments).

      Also note that as described in a news itemMany BUCS staff have worked extremely hard during this disruption giving up their nights and weekends to return as much of the service as possible in a quick timeframe“.

      BUCS are treating this incident seriously. But users will also need to develop their owen strategies for minimising problems when such incidents occur – and it was interesting to note that use of personal email services has been suggested as an interim solution.

    • schopflin said

      Email is both a communications channel and where most institutional records are made. Reliable systems, governance and training in good email behaviour is essential, especially for public sector organisations subject to FoI.

  2. Outages aside, isn’t US data storage and the Patriot Act the biggest showstopper for staff/official University mail outsourcing, or have Google made moves to alleviate this?

  3. I’m surprised more cloud services providers haven’t yet guaranteed storage in the EU (I think you can do this with Amazon EC2). Once that happens the cloud service providers could be unstoppable! It is something they might be able to charge a little extra for too.

  4. @A M Doherty, @Liam Green-Hughes thanks for the comments.

    Google has signed up to the Safe Harbor agreement so this addresses some of the concerns regarding data proectation legislation in EU countries.

    Note that from the stories I’ve heard from UK Universities which have moved to use of GMAIL (e.g. as described by a blog post by Chris Sexton, IT Services at the University of Sheffield) many users are happy with the richer functionality and additional file space provided by GMail and don’t seem to be unduly concerned by the US Patriot Act:

    Formally announced the Google mail for students option last night by sending an email to all staff and students. Replies are split almost 50/50. From students saying this is great news, and from staff saying why can’t we have it!

    I wonder if such issues wehere addressed in the recent Goople Apps for Education UK User Group meeting held at Loughborough University?

  5. A.M. Doherty said

    Thanks for the information on the safe harbour scheme Brian.

  6. Roger Matthews said

    Why restrict the remark to GMail? The Microsoft alternative seems to have addressed the safe harbour issues better and the auditability aspects of their service seem to be much more highly developed. Or have I got the wrong impression of Google-based services?

  7. To answer your question “how, I wonder, are others at the University of Bath who don’t use Twitter coping?” at least for my own part, the email outage has not caused me to use my Twitter account, which I now use only sporadically, mostly to report from events that I attend. I didn’t even think of running TweetDeck during the outage. If, on the other hand, I’d not been able to use GMail, Google Docs and Skype, it might have been more awkward to get my work done. So far, I see Twitter mostly as a status update service (useful for projects, for example) and find it less useful for personal or work communications. So I suppose that means that, even after a good two two and a half years of giving it a try, and not having given up on it entirely yet, I still don’t “get” Twitter. I do retain some hope that, if my circumstances change, I may find a better use for it yet.

    But I do think we’re comparing apples with oranges here. Twitter and email simply do different things. The only thing that they have in common is that you can communicate using them.

    Which just goes to show that Twitter, while it is ubiquitous for some, is irrelevant for quite a number of other people of my professional acquaintance. I’m sure this depends to a great extent on what one is using it for. It’s nice to see that no single working model works for everyone. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.

  8. […] Brian Kelly has written a thought provoking blog post asking if the situation suggests that it is Time to Move to GMail? […]

  9. I’ve spent years investigating this, but we’ve yet to progress as far as Cambridge have done. They have very usefully published the contract they negotiated with Google on their web site. I strongly recommend others use this in their negotiations with Google. Note Cambridge haven’t moved to GMail, but they have still been ultra cautious about data protection concerns with moving to using Google Calendar for their staff on request.

    Note that Safe Harbor alone does NOT mean a service is compliant to EU data protection rules. It only means that the 8th principle of the Data Protection Act 1998 – data transfer – is honoured when data is exported to the US, but it doesn’t apply for export to any other countries. Thankfully Google will geo-locate their EU Education customers to the EU and US only. However Google only “self certify” to Safe Harbor. Again the Cambridge folks checked Google out in this regard and were happy for their limited use of Google Apps at least, but this needn’t be true for GMail or other Safe Harbor registered SaaS services – like Yammer say. Finally Safe Harbor says nothing about compliance with the other 7 principles of DPA98, including that usage of personal data must be well defined and “used to deliver the services only”, that the data owner/controller relationship must be clear, and that data security arrangements should be ensured. For the latter Google’s compliance with the US SAS70 data security auditing standard goes some way to mollifying the anxious.

    The question of using GMail in universities is such an old chestnut that there’s already Google UK Universities user group. Loughborough are taking a lead, amongst others.

  10. We made the decision to move to Google for students nearly two years ago, and are just in the process of moving all of our staff over. That will be for mail, calendar, docs, chat, etc. we see it as much more than just mail. The data side isn’t an issue. Google store all of their data under the safe harbor agreement which is perfectly sufficient for UK data protection/privacy law – I have personally confirmed this with the ICO. And anyway, even if it was all held in Europe, it is still covered by the Patriot Act if it is a US company.

    I can see no reason for any HE IT department to run their own email service. The Google outages that have been reported are nothing in comparison to those we have in our own institutions, and I speak from experience – we had an outage of email for nearly 3 days last year. My heart goes out to the BUCS guys – I know how hard they will be working and how much they will be feeling this. Wou

  11. ..continued – must remember not to post too soon….

    Wouldn’t you rather it was the Google team trying to fix an outage, with all the resources they have at their disposal?
    So, that’s my contribution – I think in the current financial climate we should all be looking to outsource commodity services, and concentrate our limited resources on supporting the key University aims of teaching and research. I will be very relieved when in a few weeks time I no longer run these services.

  12. As it is my staff who are working to rebuild the Bath email service, I can add some information to this discussion. The underlying cause of the problem is still unknown – Oracle/Sun have been investigating for over a week but they have never seen a similar problem. We have two servers – one in each of our two machine rooms. The configurations are identical – originally they each consisted of one server and a single disk system. A few months ago we added a second disk system (different from the original one) to each server. The corrupted files are all on the added disk systems, although they were in use for several weeks without a problem. All users use just the primary server, the second one is a replicated copy of the files store, and can be brought into service as the primary server in the case of major failure. The problem initially started slowly on 21 February with some reports of possible corrupted files. This is usually an advance warning of a failing disk but no hardware errors were being reported. Eventually we took the backup server down as the number of error reports increased. Having effectively destroyed our backup server the main server then starting exhibiting the same probem. As Brian reported we closed it down and the next day built a new empty server on different hardware (actually the old email server we closed down two years earlier).

    Although we still do not know the cause of the problem I don’t think you can use our experience as a reason to move to Gmail or other external source. (There may be other good reasons for doing this of course.) Any single service could have a problem like ours: our problem is not one of failed disks but corrupted files and this is particularly a problem when the corruption gets replicated and backed up to tape (the tape backup was still running when the corruption started).

    After closing down the server our immediate advice was to use our email re-direction facility, which allows users to forward mail to another account and, optionally, to send to the local service as well. The few users who were already doing this could just switch to their private email service when we lost the main server. (Of course if they were really unlucky that could have been one of the lost Gmail accounts!) Although I am loath to recommend this in general, to be really safe delivering to two completely different mail services is probably the only way to ensure continuous access to your email.

    • Hi Dave
      Thanks for the reply – I appreciate the time spent by you and your colleagues in keeping your users informed of developements (and, of course, your non-users, including people elsewhere who are wondering why we aren’t responding to emails!).
      I agree with your comment that “I don’t think you can use our experience as a reason to move to Gmail or other external source“. But as you say “There may be other good reasons for doing this of course” – and a point I made in my post is that one shouldn’t using the GMail problems as an excuse not to use GMail.
      Note that I have used multiple systems to replicate data, including backups of my Delicious bookmarks on Diigo. I now wonder whether I should automatically copy my email message to another email service. However, like you, I am aware of possible pronblems with such an approach.

    • Hi Dave. As I said, I feel for you. I know how hard you will all be working – the late nights and weekends – to get things back. You seem to have done a great job so far. And I agree with you – this isn’t a reason to move to Google – we did it for other reasons. But I also agree with Brian – Gmail’s recent outage isn’t a reason not to move to them. Hmm, maybe too many negatives in that sentence :-)
      Good luck – hope you get things sorted soon

  13. I’m just in the middle of rolling out GOogle Apps to over 170 schools in Kirklees, integrated into our platform. Although there have been a few hiccups and frustrations – mostly to do with Outlook! – whenever we roll out training the response us 100% positive – especially once they see what The other Google Apps can do. With only costing £100 per institution for setup and free from then on it also makes the finance people smile and with single sign on to apps such as moodle, wordpress, etc. It even keeps the techies happy. Things such as filters, labels & priority inbox have been big wins. At the recent Bett show we offered both Google & Microsoft integration and out of the 450 schools colleges and universities from 18 different countries signing up only 2 opted for Microsoft tools. In Kirklees we have seen Rick solid performance from Google overall with a few strange occurrences where the odd person could not access their GMail for a few hours (about 5 staff out if 6.5k) but overall it has been good.

  14. As Brian mentioned we have a local IM service (XMPP), which not surprisingly saw much increased usage last week. We use Twitter, amongst other methods, to keep people informed, but I find Twitter of little use for more focused discussion. Yammer use has increased a little for discussion within the University – and it does not suffer from the annoying 140 character message length limitation. One good thing that may come out of our current email problem is to to encourage people to look at different ways of communicating – something I have written about on my blog:

  15. […] routine checks that I’d prepared on Thursday.  As the day progressed, it became clear that the email failure was going to continue.  We were able to set up forwarding to send messages to our personal emails, which alleviated the […]

  16. […] they had the volume of traffic which Google has and, as described last year in a post which asked Time to Move to GMail? local email service can also be unreliable. For me the more significant stories which we have seen […]

  17. […] The popularity of the IT applications provided at the University of Sheffield didn’t come about by chance.  Back in March 2011 Chris Sexton, head of CICS, the IT Services department at the University left a comment on this blog: […]

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