Managing Free Google and Microsoft Email Solutions for Educators

This is a guest post written by Dean Wiech, Managing Director at Tools4ever.

When educational institutions first began providing students with email accounts, the options were limited: Implement an in-house solution from Novel l or Microsoft, depending on your network infrastructure. There also were some small vendors in the market that also provided hosted solutions, but they were very expensive, required resources to set up and maintain, and had ongoing costs associated with them, which was an obvious downside.

About seven years ago, Google, as it so often does, upset the proverbial apple cart by giving free email accounts to the educational space. Not to be outdone, Microsoft soon followed up with Live@edu and then Office 365 for education. Both of these offerings eliminated the requirement for schools and colleges to purchase and maintain hardware for email and also eliminated the need for licensing Exchange or GroupWise.

However, one of the initial shortfalls with these offerings was the fact that there was no easy way to manage accounts in bulk. They did provide an interface that allowed for “one off” account creation and management, but with the large influx and outflow of students that the typical school or college faced each semester, the task was daunting at best.

College officials recently shared that when the school first deployed Google Apps, it spent nearly 300 employee hours keying in data to create about 5,000 student accounts. Extrapolating this out, he anticipated the school would continually spend 3.6 minutes per account, or 75 hours per year managing email accounts assuming 25 percent of the school’s matriculated students annually.

Further complicating these deployments is the fact that there is no easy way to synchronize passwords between the network account and the emails account. It is easy to set the initial password as identical, but the user is required to change the password upon initial login. This frequently results in two different passwords being created – one for the network and one for email – causing a large number of calls to the helpdesk for password resets in one or both systems.

Fortunately, there are a number of identity and access management solutions available that alleviate this problem, allowing IT staff to extend their automated user account provisioning to include both the Google Apps and Office 365 environments. By utilizing these connectors, the amount of time to manage an account has gone from 3.6 minutes to virtually zero.

As the solutions offered by Google and Microsoft provide email accounts “for life,” it is important to have procedures in place that ensure the email accounts remain active, and possibly moved to an alumni folder, for example, upon student graduation. This needs to occur even when the network access account has been deleted.

Another feature available from software vendors is a password synch tool. Anytime users change a password in their network account, the new entry is immediately passed to the mail account, insuring consistency and a significant reduction in calls to the help desk. Extending this one step further is providing a self-service reset password application whereby the student can reset a forgotten password based on challenge questions. This reset password can also be synched to the email solution, once again insuring consistency.

While the email offerings provided by Google and Microsoft are free, the time required to set up and manage thousands of student and faculty accounts can be overwhelming and expensive. Fortunately, cost-effective solutions are available to reduce or eliminate the burden placed on the IT staff by automating the user and email account lifecycle.

Dean Wiech is managing director at Tools4ever, Inc. Tools4ever, a global supplier of identity and access management solutions.