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University of Cambridge to decommission its homegrown email service Hermes in favour of Microsoft Exchange Online

Institute says the knowledge needed to run it is fading, but the move wasn't without opposition

The University of Cambridge has said that it will decommission its on-premises Hermes email service in favour of Microsoft's Exchange Online. Currently both systems are in use.

The surprise, perhaps, is that the university still runs Hermes, an old-school email server. Email services are burdensome to run, with many issues centred on spam and malware management, compliance with regulations, security, and support issues around non-delivery, email client configuration, lost email and more.

Educational institutions were among the first to adopt cloud email, primarily Google Mail or Office 365, though in the early days Microsoft's product would have been called Live@edu, introduced in 2005, or BPOS (Business productivity Online Suite), introduced in 2008.

Cloud email was a double win for education as it not only removed an administrative burden but was also offered at low prices, with the big vendors no doubt hoping that students would get hooked on their tech and go on to recommend it in business.

This is Cambridge University, though, in Silicon Fen, where there has been a department of computer science since 1937 (when it was called the Mathematical Laboratory), home of computing pioneer Alan Turing, home of one of the world's earliest digital computers (EDSAC in 1949). It saw email evolve from a system called Phoenix in the early days to Hermes running on a Unix-based system from 1994.

Closing down on-premises email may be the right thing to do from a business perspective, but it is also a sad moment, particularly since the statement from the University Information Services (UIS) refers to difficulties maintaining the expertise to run the service: "Hermes is a reliable system that has served well, but the knowledge and expertise needed to keep it running are in very short supply."

The university has also offered Microsoft cloud services for some time, with an "Enrolment for Education" (EES) site licence since October 2015. From the 2018/19 academic year, new students were issued with Exchange Online email accounts instead of Hermes accounts. In May 2019 the Information Services Committee (ISC) undertook a "strategic review of the centrally provided email systems in the University" and concluded that Hermes should be decommissioned "no later than 31 December 2021".

The move has been controversial. In response to the ISC's review, then postmaster David McBride submitted a paper opposing the migration. McBride, along with Computer Officer David Carter, managed systems including Hermes, a shared central relay called ppswitch (PPSW), which scans most inbound and outbound email for malware, and a mailing list system.

McBride argued that "we must not standardize on Exchange Online" and "should stop issuing Exchange Online accounts to new users by default". His primary objection to Microsoft's service was that "it does not implement IETF standards – at least not competently". In particular, he said: "Its IMAP service implementation is sufficiently poor as to lose data in practice, its mail handling has been seen to violate RFC MUST assertions that causes cryptographic email signatures to be rendered invalid, and it has even sometimes generated outbound email that contains invalid MIME data."

He added: "Email services that do not competently support IETF standards, such as SMTP, IMAP, MIME and the like, present significant interoperability challenges and will risk leaving us locked in to using a single vendor."

McBride also stated that Hermes had a better availability record than either Gmail or Exchange Online, with a "single two-hour outage" in recent years. He also said that the cost of Hermes, estimated at around £10 per user per year including staff costs, compared favourably to the cost of the EES licence, which he said was £35.00 per year excluding staff costs (but including additional services).

The UIS statement did not refer to any standards issues. It said that it "has undertaken extensive research into the extent to which Hermes capabilities can be replicated in Exchange Online and has thoroughly tested the user experience". The issues identified by UIS were that users with "complex rules" for mail processing will need to manually replicate them, and that heavy users of Hermes Webmail will need to "get used to a different look and feel". UIS also made reference to a benefit of Exchange Online, which is its integration with other Microsoft 365 products including calendars.

In October 2019 McBride was appointed Senior Computer Specialist at the University of Oxford. Commenting on the latest news on Twitter, he said: "It's a choice. It might even be the right one for the organisation! I mostly worry that this follows a trend where these choices tend to prioritise the needs of the administration over the wider institution, and sacrifice long-term sustainability and adaptability."

What will users do if they wish to avoid Exchange Online after Hermes is decommissioned? The answer is that they will use other services, such as the email service offered by the Student-Run Computing Facility, which is open to all students and staff. Non-Microsoft email will therefore live on at the university, though no longer operated centrally, and perhaps without the resources to be managed to the same standards. ®

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