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New campuswide e-mail system to replace faltering UCLink

– UC Berkeley e-mail experts are pulling a switch on the seasons, with death in the spring – last March's weeklong UCLink meltdown – to be followed by rebirth in the winter, with the planned January launch of a brand new campuswide e-mail service.

E-mail is playing an ever more critical role on campus, prompting the Information Systems & Technology (IS&T) department to seek out a modern, reliable way to handle the rising volume of message traffic. The department formed the Berkeley E-mail Replacement Team (BERT) to implement a successor to the current campus e-mail service, but also to look beyond UCLink toward the future of e-mail at Berkeley.

The new system will be called CalMail, borrowing its name from the current campuswide announcement service run by the chancellor's office (which henceforth will be called CalMail Messages). Ann Dobson, associate director of academic computing services and project lead for BERT, said IS&T envisions CalMail as the centerpiece of a suite of communications programs that eventually could include integrated voice mail, and possibly even instant messaging.

The BERT team plans to roll out CalMail to all UCLink users in January 2004, following a one-month pilot test by IS&T. Conversion of other central e-mail services, including Socrates, will come later. CalMail is powered by CommuniGate Pro, a messaging platform built by Mill Valley's Stalker Software. The program is already in use at UC Santa Cruz, and is being considered by UC's Office of the President in Oakland.

UCLink's demise has been in the cards for years. The venerable system debuted more than a decade ago – an eternity in the fast-moving world of digital communications. Its 45,000 current accounts send more than 400,000 e-mail messages on a typical day, severely testing UCLink's aging infrastructure. The program's software is no longer supported by its vendor, and "the current hardware is already past the end of its usable life," said Brion Moss, technical lead for BERT and an analyst with Central Computing Services (CCS). "We're nursing it and babying it and burping it to try to keep it going."

While a replacement was needed, an improvement was wanted by e-mail users across campus. The BERT team says that's what they'll get in CalMail. The new system will provide greater reliability – a vital factor in light of March's hardware-related failure that interrupted e-mail service for about a week – and it will be able to scale up as usage increases. Dobson said there's no real upper limit to the volume of mail CalMail can handle, because with its clustered configuration, administrators can add servers and disk space to keep up with the traffic.

One of the greatest advantages for current UCLink users will be the lack of visible change. Under CalMail, users will continue to use their current e-mail client (like Eudora or Outlook), and mail sent to UCLink e-mail addresses will be delivered seamlessly by CalMail. "The hope is that 99 plus percent of users won't even notice the switchover to the new system," Dobson said.

However, CalMail will finally allow the campus to deliver on a longtime wishlist item for e-mail users: implementation of username@berkeley.edu addresses. "I've worked on UCLink for 10 years, and people have always wanted that," said BERT's outreach lead, Bernie Tower of the Workstation Software Support Group.

While UCLink addresses won't be disabled, all accounts will be able to begin using the simpler, more recognizable @berkeley.edu addresses as soon as CalMail goes public. UCLink user names will be retained by CalMail, making the conversion a simple and direct one; for example, JaneDoe@UCLink.berkeley.edu will become simply JaneDoe@berkeley.edu.

Campus users who fetch their mail via the web will notice a major change with the rollout of CalMail, but BERT leaders hope it will be seen as a change for the better. The existing BearMail web access will be replaced by CalMail's web interface, which Dobson and Tower said has "a very different look and feel," in part because of the ability to choose "skins" that customize the interface's appearance. CalMail on the web will look and function much like commercial web mail programs.

The new web access "is more integrated with the system," Dobson said. "For instance, you'll be able to change your password or set up your vacation message through the system. It will also have server-side filtering, both for spam and viruses and for sorting to user mailboxes." With more than half of UCLink's users (predominantly students) relying exclusively on BearMail, Dobson said the web interface changes may be the most noticed part of the switch to CalMail.

CalMail clients also should appreciate the new system's 100Mb quota for individual user mailboxes, nearly triple UCLink's 35Mb limit. CalMail officials hope to add the ability to purchase a higher mail storage quota for those users whose in-boxes are overflowing with MP3s and disk-hungry images, but they haven't yet worked out details or prices.

In addition to individual UCLink users, who should start reaping the benefits of CalMail in January, officials are proposing the new system as a replacement for many of the individual e-mail servers being run by departments and units all over campus. "There's a lot of interest from departmental administrators," Tower said. "E-mail is very labor-intensive to administer and support, so this would be a cost saving for departments."

Tower is heading up a task force looking into the needs of departmental e-mail administrators, and is planning a pilot test using The Scholar's Workstation as the guinea pig. Any departmental conversions would not happen until Spring 2004 at the earliest, after the kinks have been worked out of the UCLink migration.

Initial department conversions will be done at no cost. However, Shel Waggener, CCS director and a member of the BERT steering committee, said that if efforts to recruit departments to CalMail are "overly successful," it might become necessary to institute a charge in the future.

Another future function of CalMail is an enhanced mailing list capability. For the January transition from UCLink, administrators will keep the current Majordomo and listlink services on UCLink intact. However, at some future point, they plan to migrate to CommuniGate's more robust mailing list service. Tower said the new software will give list managers the ability to archive messages, and will handle bounced list e-mail much better than Majordomo does. It also has improved list moderation, to help battle spam problems. "We're trying to make maintaining the lists very user friendly," she said.

More information on the new e-mail system is available from BERT's website.