UNC Chapel Hill Migrating to Microsoft Exchange: a poor choice for freedom
The University of North Carolina has a long history of supporting software freedom. The University has sponsored ibiblio.org since before I started using the internet, and recently made the very smart move to switch away from the proprietary Blackboard online learning system to Sakai, which is licensed under an Apache-like license. Recently however the university has made an unfortunate choice about its email systems. I wrote in my last post about the dichotomy between academic computing and commercial computing, and unfortunately UNC Chapel Hill has chosen commercial computing over academic computing in handling its email systems. This disappoints me. I contend that their justifications, mostly based on “performance” and “meeting the needs of users” are hollow. Performance is not the only thing that is important in computer systems. As far as I can tell, the only feature that distinguishes the new system from the existing system is the ability to invade user privacy. Worst of all, the university is sacrificing academic computing ideals, including freedom, and “outsourcing” its email to a commercial interest. The fact that a world-class university like UNC Chapel Hill would trust Microsoft instead of using their own talent is really stupid.
Take a look at this list of advantages of the new Microsoft-based email system, offered by the ITS staff at the medical school. Look carefully and notice that the only feature that is really new is the “[a]bility to ‘wipe’ lost/stolen portable devices.” Everything else on that list is available with Cyrus IMAP. In other words, the university prefers a system that allows invasion of privacy. Now, I understand that there is a good security motivation for this feature. However, when considering that this is the only new feature of Exchange over Cyrus IMAP, it seems odd that the university is favoring a new system that does allow invasion of privacy. Why is that so important? Clearly the new system does not “meet the needs of users,” as much as it meets the needs of administrators.
Another feature that doesn’t make sense to me is “Scalable handheld (smart phone) e-mail solution – works with Blackberry, iPhone, Windows Mobile, Android, etc.” This is a little weird because I don’t need to view a webpage to get my email on my desktop, why would I need to view a webpage to get my email on a smartphone? This demonstrates the most annoying aspect of all the announcements I’ve gotten about the new email system: confusion between, or failure to distinguish client and server. Many of the justifications for the new email system are made on the basis of clients, but the change the university is making is a change of server. That’s weird because the whole point of standardized protocols like IMAP is so that clients can be entirely agnostic to the identity of the server. If the server chooses to depend on nonstandard features, that messes things up for clients. Which client I use is my choice, and the server should accommodate. That’s the “needs of users.” However, I know at least one user who’s having trouble even marking her mail read while connecting her chosen client to the new server.
Features and “performance” are a common justification for using proprietary software. There is a common attitude that “open source is best for making the world a better place, but I need to get my work done and I’ll choose the best tool for the job.” We’ve already ruled out any advantages in terms of “features” of Microsoft Exchange over the Cyrus IMAP daemon. There are other things to consider: the quality of service and the message that the choice of proprietary software sends to students of the university. The quality of service with Microsoft Email servers that I’ve experienced is terrible. Again, the biggest problem is the confusion of client and server. I used to work at a large hospital system that used Exchange, and whenever I called the helpdesk, they would refuse to answer any questions about the server until I told them which client I used. In other words, they wouldn’t simply tell me if the server was down because I was using Thunderbird to read my mail. Storing mail and reading mail are two different things. Sending mail and fetching mail are two different things. The only people in charge of an email system should be people who (minimally) understand those facts. Microsoft’s sales tactic, on the other hand, is that their “customers” will save money by hiring less qualified people. In other words, screw service, screw your users, save your own ass some dough. That’s what UNC Chapel Hill is choosing.
The message this sends to UNC students is that the university cares more about money and less about student lives and intellectual freedom. They’re already raising tuition. The university is effectively making itself another corporate entity. They are in the business not of education, but of being in business, just like any other vacuous corporation. That’s insane. Universities should be bastions of intellectual freedom and they should cultivate and harvest the fruits of that intellectual freedom by providing key infrastructure themselves. They should not seek to emulate the corporate world. I understand that they want to save money, but they should do it by hiring fewer, well-qualified people to staff fewer servers running free software.
I often mention that I’ve been using the internet for almost twenty years. I do this for two reasons, neither of which is to brag or apply seniority. One is to emphasize that before most people found out about the world-wide web, there was an established culture on the internet of scientists, engineers and computer personnel. Universities were the backbone of that community. After the concept of the internet was established by the military, universities carried the torch and led the way in technology. When the military needed a new technology to build up their newer communications network, where did they go? They went to Berkeley. A university has the necessary expertise for what they needed.
The other reason I point out how long I’ve used the internet is a sort of nostalgia. The best way to use the internet was always on university machines, running some form of Unix: BSD, System V, SunOS and more recently GNU/Linux. Universities were always the best places to use computers. Why? Because universities were where the talent grew up, developed and was allowed to be creative. Universities existed outside the stultifying, cost-saving world of corporations.
It seems that now universities are done giving the baby a bath, they are throwing the baby, the bathwater, the tub, the sink and the baby’s mom out of the window. They might as well kick dad in the balls by only teaching their computer science students how to work for Microsoft. Using Microsoft servers, software and supporting corporate culture (i.e. the culture of Microsoft) doesn’t serve the interests of students, researchers at the university, or society. Universities serve their students by teaching them how to be flexible, creative and constructive members of society. Universities do not help their students by teaching them to be money-hungry, cog-thinking, competitive corporate flunkies. A university can teach all of the above good values by teaching students with free software based on Unix ideals. It can even do so in an inclusive environment that includes Microsoft software. However, teaching students in a university computing environment mainly based on Microsoft software does not teach them creativity or flexibility: it teaches them “you don’t have a right to learn until you are chosen as one of the elite; then you can subjugate people just like we’ve subjugated you.”
Anybody who says “We have to be realistic and teach students to use software X because those are the jobs that are out there” is a corporate tool. People who learn properly at a university can learn to use anything that someone hands them: that’s the point of a college education, to be able to learn, not to know something.
Furthermore, universities do not serve their researchers by running Microsoft software. Researchers at universities are professionals and they need to be treated that way. Microsoft products are just not professional quality. Even if they were, they limit freedom in such a way that they should not be taken seriously by researchers. This goes for all proprietary software, including Mathematica and Matlab, but researchers have choices on what to use in their own research. Unfortunately they often have to use what a university will provide for them when it comes to basic services like email. Universities should provide the best, and Microsoft Exchange is just not the best. If Cyrus IMAP was not the best, they could have chosen Dovecot, Courier, Zimbra or any of the huge number of free software alternatives. If the Cyrus system “… is old, complex, outdated, and does not fully meet the needs of our users” they can hire dedicated, talented people and make it simple and current so that it meets the needs of users. Instead they choose Microsoft.
Both of these failures to meet the needs of students and researchers mean that the university is failing society as well. People denigrate the “ivory tower” all the time, but there are chunks that fall from that ivory tower that change society and even make people a lot of money. Let me see if I can think of a few examples: the internet, the world-wide web, science, liberalism, Charles Darwin…
What can you do? Complain. If you have a problem with the new email system, let the university know. They do listen. A list of the relevant managers in charge can be found on the ITS web site. Email them directly. Another alternative is to stop using email. I don’t advise this because UNC has made email an official form of communication. You could probably rig something where they have to contact you by campus mail (forcing you to use email is discriminatory). However, another problem is that email is, I believe, with all its problems, the best form of electronic communication. If you want to ‘e’-anything, you should email it. One thing I know I will do is I will seriously consider the IT infrastructure at the next university I go to. I’m a graduate student, so my time at UNC is limited. I will have things I will miss and things I certainly won’t.
One more thing: don’t wait until the forced transition if you plan to continue using email. I’m going to transition tomorrow and I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks for reading.