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Special Annual Awards

2008 Campus Technology Innovators: Collaboration Tools

2008 Campus Technology Innovators

THE COMPREHENSIVE E-MAIL conversion at Texas A&M involved 80,000 maiboxes and more than 22 million messages in the mailstore, yet the migration required only 12 hours of downtime.

Innovator: Texas A&M University

When a campus is forced to replace an outmoded e-mail system from the ground up, technologists and administrators opt for a full-featured, multi-faceted collaboration system instead-- and more than just communication takes off.

With the 2007 fall semester drawing to a close and the campus community winding down for the holidays, campus IT leaders at Texas A&M University were gearing up for a major overhaul of their campus communications systems. The problem they were facing had a familiar ring-- one echoed on many other campuses across the country: "Our legacy e-mail system is stuck in the early 2000s!" Of course, students, faculty, and staff were growing increasingly tech-savvy and had been exposed to full-featured consumer e-mail and collaboration services, so expectations were running high on campus. The migration to a new solution had to be smooth and timely, and the new system had to offer much more than basic e-mail.

As Michael W. Bolton, associate director for systems, explains, the Texas A&M IT team, headed by Senior Information Technology Manager Cheryl Cato, moved quickly to replace the universitys old Sendmail system in a compressed time frame and with relatively few problems. The conversion was extensive, including all 80,000 mailboxes and more than 22 million messages in the mailstore. "We had to change years of support procedures and processes," says Bolton, "from provisioning new accounts for customers, to deleting accounts for people who left the university. Everything had to change."

By full production cutover on February 2, 2008-- a mere three weeks from initial installation and testing-- the entire university e-mail customer base had been moved to the Zimbra Collaboration Suite platform. There had been only 12 hours of downtime. The new e-mail and collaboration platform was integrated with hardware, software, and storage platforms from IBM, Novell, and NetApp, without incident.

Texas A&Ms communications infrastructure upgrade not only brought the campus up-to-date, but also provides IT with the tools to respond to future constituent expectations.

But the real excitement came with the knowledge that the entire university communications infrastructure had been upgraded to provide constituents a true collaboration system, one that not only would bring the campus up-to-date, but also would provide tools to respond to future constituent expectations. IT leaders knew they were fostering a culture of engagement throughout the campus, with better storage, mobile options, and a thorough collaboration experience. Calendaring was turned on from day one, immediately offering the whole campus an entirely new communications hub.

The intensive conversion to the new platform was successful and timely, but the Texas A&M IT team isnt stopping there. "Zimlets" that create an interface for third-party programs to be hooked into the collaboration suite allow more applications to work inside the suite. Business units on campus will be encouraged to develop solutions tailored to their departments. The IT department already has received dozens of requests for new collaboration Zimlets incorporating Flickr, Twitter, Amazon, RSS feeds, the iCal standard for campus events, and more. Many paper-driven processes already have been replaced with e-mail, offering a huge cost savings, and the university will leverage other paperless processes. Technologists currently are working on a secure IM system for researchers and for other document-sharing applications-- services that university administrators and educators hope will increase collaboration further. The team also is expecting improvements on the back end. The university's NetApp storage solution ultimately will leverage the migration of e-mail from high-performance disk to possibly slower, higher-capacity storage. Customers will receive even larger storage quotas while the university realizes cost savings.

Says Bolton, "When we completed the conversion and the servers were back online, the first message we received was a big thank-you note from a student. When we implemented the service, we never anticipated how popular it would be; customers who never used the server are now asking for accounts." His advice to other IT organizations considering extensive technology upgrades? "Dont be afraid to step into such a big change; just remember that keeping people informed is key."

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