University chops students' Microsoft 365 storage to 20GB

Sacrificing its academic backups for the sake of the environment

Updated Microsoft's decision to cut the storage in its Microsoft 365 Education line is having some real-world consequences, with a Canadian university imposing draconian measures partly in response to the restrictions.

Photo of McGill University front pathway with lots of students on sunny fall autumn day

Photo of McGill University front pathway with lots of students on sunny fall autumn day - Click to enlarge

McGill University published a notification earlier this week warning students that a 20GB limit would be foisted upon their OneDrive storage space, in addition to 20GB of Outlook email storage.

Students have until May 31, 2024, to get their storage below the 20GB mark or find themselves unable to store any new files.

Microsoft announced changes to storage services for Microsoft 365 Education users in 2023 and stated that all school tenants would receive 100TB of free pooled storage across OneDrive, SharePoint, and Exchange. It said that additional pooled storage could be purchased per paid user.

"IT Admins have the flexibility to set a lower limit for A1 users."

As for the why, Microsoft said – somewhat bizarrely – its mission was to "Empower education through innovation." We suppose that cutting the storage available to academics is certainly innovative.

However, it is the two other justifications for the change onto which McGill has latched.

First is security – lots of confidential data could lurk in student storage spaces, forgotten about until discovered by a ne'er-do-well. Second, is the environmental impact of all that cloud storage. Microsoft's hand-wringing over the matter is will documented. In this instance it said:

"Stored files that are no longer in use, have an impact on our carbon footprint with over half of all data stored by organizations not serving a useful purpose."

It went on to cite data from the World Economic Forum. "Storage of this 'dark' data takes up space on servers and results in increased electricity consumption, generating 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 alone."

Of the potentially unused files, McGill said this week: "They require a lot of electrical energy for the billions of files to be kept available 24/7 as well as ensuring their security. This electrical energy generates more and more excess heat, and we need to curb this dangerous trend."

Reg readers might point out that the sheer amount of compute and storage required to keep Microsoft's AI obsession on track, or the landfills which will be filled with perfectly good PC hardware once Windows 10 goes end-of-life, should both be remembered when considering Microsoft's environmental track record.

The Register asked McGill why it had decided to go beyond Microsoft's restrictions and will update should the University respond.

In the meantime, affected users have taken to social media to express their displeasure at the news. One noted that "the implications for research integrity are massive" thanks to retention requirements for research data that can't simply be stashed on a personal drive due, in part, to the aforementioned security risks. ®

Updated at 15.32 UTC on January 26, 2024, to add:

A spokesperson for McGill got in touch to tell us that the changes were triggered by Microsoft’s quota allotment reductions.

“For the MS Education suite, the University does not have paid A1 licenses for students, only free licenses with no storage space allocated.

“Microsoft made a decision to limit the storage available for each licensing level. The change in Microsoft’s storage allocations has forced McGill to reevaluate their offerings to students or incur significant increases in licensing costs. The new allocation was determined based on Microsoft’s licensing structure and the financial impact to the university.

“The limit is imposed on personal storage only. However, data collected and stored in collaborative storage spaces (for example, shared Teams and Sharepoint sites) will not be impacted by the personal storage quota reduction. We came to the decision by considering McGill’s large population (students, faculty, researchers, staff, alumni and retirees), the prolific usage of Office 365 at McGill, and by conducting an analysis of data storage usage vs shareable/pooled data storage.

“We acknowledge that some students will require more storage to accomplish their academic tasks, for example, those conducting academic research. Exceptions can be requested and will be considered/evaluated for students who justify the need for additional storage. We will not allow the imposed limit to affect any academic-related activities.”

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