Some thoughts on a 'modern' university email system

October 25, 2009

Here's a question: what would a 'modern' university email system look like, one that's in line with the 'students already have online lives' theme of last entry?

(Let's assume that our assignment is limited to designing the email system, and thus we don't get to question or change what it's used for.)

Clearly, a lot of people will already have outside email addresses and many of them will want to just forward their university email address to their real address. Not everyone will, though; we should expect a certain number of people to want to keep their university mailbox separate from their personal one. (And some people will open up a new GMail account or whatever and forward their university email to it, in order to keep the mail separate but get the interface they like.)

If the university email system is effectively a backup for your real email address, that means that we need to make it a good backup, one that avoids and works around the general problems with email forwarding (those problems often lead to such forwarding being officially discouraged). First of all, the system should do a good job of forwarding in general. At a minimum, this means segregating outgoing email into separate streams for at least official university communications, email that originated on campus, and email that came in from the outside world.

(By 'official university communications', I don't mean the weekly email bulletin; I mean critical notices about stuff that people will be held responsible for.)

In order to be a real backup, the system needs to be able to recover if something goes wrong with your forwarding. So:

  • it should keep a copy of the last N days of all email, where N is a reasonably substantial figure. (Certainly it should be longer than the largest break in the school year, which argues for at least three or four weeks.)
  • if the system can see that your forwarding has broken down (eg, it gets SMTP-time rejections), it should not expire the unforwarded email at all. It should also flag it, put it in a separate folder, or otherwise make it really easy to see when you finally log into the university email system.

  • it should keep a copy of all official university communications, no matter how old. This should be visible in a separate (IMAP) folder that has just them, so it is easy to skim.

(This is radically different than how most current email systems handle forwarding. That's because current email systems don't do a good job of really supporting forwarding; instead they just wash their hands of the email after they've tried to dump it on someone else.)

There should be a competent webmail interface to all of this, because it's going to be popular; using webmail is less work than configuring an IMAP client if you're only a casual, occasional user, ie you're someone who forwards their email. The local power users will continue to prefer IMAP.

Written on 25 October 2009.
« Something I have realized about university services
What I think I understand about how standards get created »

Page tools: View Source, Add Comment.
Login: Password:
Atom Syndication: Recent Comments.

Last modified: Sun Oct 25 00:47:28 2009
This dinky wiki is brought to you by the Insane Hackers Guild, Python sub-branch.