Dal's internet works with hundreds of switches like this one. Photo by: Delia Macpherson

Dal email switches to Hotmail

Dal faculty ignored, cloud-based e-mail server a go

Dalhousie University hopes to start implementing cloud-based email services for the student body starting in February 2012. The university's email services will no longer be controlled by Dalhousie, and will be run by the multi-billion dollar American company Microsoft, through Hotmail.

Implementing a similar solution for staff will likely be completed before the end of this year. The date for other groups around campus, which include professors, professional librarians, counsellors and instructors, is still unclear.

Dwight Fischer, Dalhousie's chief information officer, says there are multiple benefits to switching over, including future savings and service improvements.

"We've got an old email system," says Fischer. "We want to replace it with something state-of-the-art. Replacing our email server would be $2 million dollars."

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The heavily protected server room at Dal, which hosts all the information on Dal's network. Photo by: Delia Macpherson

E-mail not the only privacy concern

At the end of 2011, Dalhousie cancelled their contract with the company iParadigms which hosts the website turnitin.com. The website is an anti-plagiarism tool that searches documents for originality. The contracts were terminated because the information was supposed to stay on Canadian servers, but instead were being stored in the U.S.

  • Dalhousie News did a two-part story on Dwight Fischer in 2011 which includes a number of engaging comments from students and staff.
  • Halifax-based privacy lawyer David Fraser was invited to speak in April 2011 about privacy laws, cloud computing and impact to information technology strategy.

Microsoft and Google are offering superior email services than anything Dalhousie could ever achieve on its own, he says. The Dalhousie email server currently offers about 500 MB of storage per user compared to the over 7 GB available through a Hotmail or Gmail account. The cost for Microsoft to provide email and calendar services to Dalhousie is zero.

Fischer says there are a dozen Dalhousie information technology employees who manage the university's email services, when instead they could be working on helping improve teaching and learning in the classrooms.

Anthony Stewart, president of the Dalhousie Faculty Association, says the university hasn't addressed the concerns of faculty. Stewart says the university could save money and still meet faculty's wants by pooling their resources and working with other universities across the province to host a shared server.

Two of the main issues with the change are concerns with custody and control issues, and national jurisdictions.

"It's a matter of ownership," says Stewart. "My issue is what we might run into down the road. If I'm writing a chapter for a book, a journal... or even my lecture notes, what happens when it's 'in the cloud'. Who owns it?"

According to Stewart, the law hasn't caught up with "who owns what" when it comes to shared servers like the one offered by Microsoft. He says that most of the negative feedback directed towards administration has been dismissed as fear mongering or has been ignored altogether. The recent privacy, copyright and ownership issues that have plagued Facebook users might all be equally relevant when applied to other cloud-computing services.

The U.S. and cloud-based computing

The United States Patriot Act allows the U.S. government to flag and monitor potential terrorist activity. If Dalhousie switches over to an American-owned company's server, any information shared through the server could be flagged.

"The biggest reaction we've gotten," says Fischer, "is from vulnerability to prying eyes of the government. Microsoft, Google or Dal won't matter. Any email isn't totally secure."

Fischer says that many people check their email through their iPhone which is connected to multiple servers around the world, so the information leaves the private Dalhousie server. He also says many students and staff forward their Dalhousie emails directly into a Gmail or Hotmail account.

Stewart says he owns an iPhone and uses a Gmail account, but says the difference is he independently made the decision to take on the risks with sharing information over a shared server.

"Those risks should not be a condition of my employment," says Stewart. "The decision is being taken out of [the faculty's] hands. This is a group of people who read, write and think for a living. They shouldn't be treated like children."

According to Stewart, if the faculty's email switches over to a cloud-based server it could hinder the ability to get grants for research. Researchers that work with human subjects must guarantee that data can be destroyed.

"If the data is running off a server in Washington State or California there is no guarantee that the data can be destroyed," says Stewart.

Without the guarantee, there will be no research grant.

"Storms come out of clouds too," says Stewart, "and this is one of them."

Other universities in Canada have already made the switch to cloud-based email services, including the University of Toronto and the University of New Brunswick.

Comments on this story are now closed


Posted by tessa | Jan 17, 2022

yay hotmail. the official email service provider for poor people and immigrants. easily hacked, overly spammed.....dal dropped the ball yet again. should have gone to google's cloud based email system.

Posted by bobby | Jan 27, 2022