University getting ready to adopt new email system

Contact: Jeanne Baron

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The verdict is in: Microsoft Office 365 for Education—O365—will be Western Michigan University's next email system.

That version of O365 is a free suite of email and other applications for educational institutions that will replace WMU's current Webmail Plus email and collaboration system.

The approval to switch to O365 was made Sept. 21. The tentative plan is to do test migrations in December and January to identify best practices, develop self-help documentation, and provide input for how to familiarize and train email users. The remaining users will be migrated in February and March, with everyone expected to be switched over by the first week of April.

Edward Kluk, NextGen Email Project manager in the Office of Information Technology, says the actual conversions will take place at night to minimize disruptions. Due to the volume of data involved, it will take WMU eight to nine weeks to complete the migrations.

Kluk says by adopting the O365 suite, WMU will be able to provide new and improved services. Many of the popular features from Webmail Plus are included, and lifelong email accounts, address books and a calendar have been added for all WMU alumni who want to remain engaged with the University.

Why a new system is needed

WMU's current email provider, Merit in Ann Arbor, will end support of its cloud-based email service on June 30, 2017. WMU has paid for the service through June 30, 2016, and will avoid incurring additional fees if it migrates to a new system before the contract ends.

"Email is only a part of the overall expectation people have of electronic communication. Individual and shared calendars, multiple and shared address books, shared email folders, document storage, collaboration, and video conferencing are just some of the tools that are essential today," Kluk says.

"When we looked at the pros and cons of Google Apps for Education and Microsoft O365 for Education we found significant strengths in both. The result was that both suites are powerful and many features that are in one are also in the other. Either suite could be adapted, so we had to look and see if there were compelling reason to select one over the other. We found that O365 allows sharing of email folders and had other compelling features that swayed the decision."

Kluk notes that the Office of Information Technology was asked to lead the effort to select the new system. He says a product selection board was created in February of 2015 and began assessing the pros and cons of three major software packages—O365, Google Apps for Education and Zimbra—to see which one would be most advantageous for WMU. The board also looked at hybrid solutions, such as providing one package for students and another for employees.

Other data was gathered from across campus through a Universitywide survey, eight focus groups representing a range of work groups, and four campus teams that assessed the available options in terms of functional capabilities, technical capabilities, needs of those with disabilities, and security and privacy.

"Social media is the way most students communicate today, and email is old news. Right now, we're 12 years behind our students with Webmail Plus, so we need to upgrade our system to current technologies," Kluk says. "Microsoft Office 365 puts us at the same level our students are at. This opens up all kinds of potential for interacting with our students directly, as well as conducting University business more collaboratively and efficiently across campus."

Benefits of O365

WMU will see numerous benefits from adopting a single suite in its entirety rather than a hybrid system that incorporates a combination of features from two different packages. Notably, a non-hybrid solution helps ensure a smooth transition for both PCs and Macs as well as most tablets and cell phones.

Many of the collaboration tools found in Webmail Plus are available in O365, both on the Web and as stand-alone applications. Webmail Plus' email, Calendar, Address Book, Tasks and Briefcase will be replaced in O365 by Outlook Mail, Outlook Calendar, Outlook People, Outlook Tasks and OneDrive for Business, respectively.

Under the new system, each user will be able to:

  • Store 50 gigabytes of email data.
  • Archive an unlimited amount of email data.
  • Have 1 terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage.

In addition, the Office of Information Technology will be supporting rule-based forwarding and rule-based redirection.

"Rule-based forwarding will forward email, with the 'from field' showing the account that the email was forwarded from," Kluk explains. "Rule-based redirect keeps the original sender's email address in the 'From' field."

The O365 suite also includes:

  • On-the-Web versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, OneNote and OneDrive.
  • Microsoft Office apps for mobile devices (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, OneDrive).
  • Microsoft Office desktop versions for installation on work and home personal computers (five installations per individual).
  • Skype for Business (instant messaging and video chat).

Kluk says when the actual migration date gets near, documentation will be available regarding how to use O365, and the information technology Help Desk will be available if employees have questions.

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