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Guest Commentary: On a rainy afternoon earlier this month, my stuffed-to-the-gills University of Washington e-mail storage finally burst. I had gone well over the 1,000 megabyte mark, mostly by e-mailing scans of PDF’d articles to myself. This prompted an automated message that warned me of the dangers of going over my data quota.

“The sky is falling!” it read. Well, no, it just said to clear out my inbox or I might lose access to it, or, at least, have incoming e-mails bounce off and away into digital oblivion. As a Ph.D. student working for two professors this quarter as a research assistant, in addition to taking a full load of classes, that wasn’t an option.

And so I cleared it out – way too much. I had searched my archives for my old “notes to self” in our Web Alpine, in-house e-mail service, and simply deleted them, thinking that doing so would be an easy way to make room.

But in looking for and then deleting what I thought was a redundant backlog of old e-mails, I had inadvertently wiped out about half of my messages. In a shaky panic, I checked my sadly neglected desktop e-mail on my well-worn  Samsung netbook. There, to my dismay, I found that I hadn’t actually managed to download my old e-mails since last fall: in other words, I was in trouble.

I anxiously fired off a plaintive “save me!” query to the helpful Information Technology office. They reassured this unnerved grad student that, yes, they had e-mail tape backups from before my accidental-apocalypse safely stored on the UW’s  server farm.

Whew.

Apparently, I wasn’t the first one to this. But then I was offered a couple of choices. I could either back-up what I had to my desktop (using Outlook), then delete the rest of the newer e-mails on my UW e-mail, and then they could restore what was lost, or, I was told, I could switch to one of the new cloud-based e-mail services through Microsoft or Google. My old e-mail address would be forwarded to a new one, and I’d have more than enough storage space (10 GB’s for Live, 7 for Gmail).

Oh, and even if I didn’t make the switch now, I’d probably have to  do so by June 30, since the UW was finally shutting down its old internal “Alpine” e-mail service. Having gone through several iteration’s, Alpine had served me well since my undergrad days.

It was simple, steady and easy to access off-site and away from home (it worked just as well in Europe as it did in Edmonds). Back at the UW for grad school, I was using it again, and while not as elegant as Gmail, it got the job done.

But it was time for a change.

I didn’t have much time to make up my mind, as those taped back-ups would only last about a week or so. I figured that it was better to jump now, than later, and opted for the Gmail option (having used Gmail for journalism work before, I had really liked its interface).

But I still liked using Outlook for my desktop e-mail, and so downloaded everything as instructed to that, and then set up my new UW Gmail account. It wasn’t precisely painless – I had tried to use Mozilla’s Thunderbird, which  no longer has an easily accessible uploader to Gmail – but I did get Outlook to sync nicely with Gmail.

The whole process took about two hours or so (though my case was a bit more complicated, since it involved a railroad-like downloading, saving, and subsequent syncing process).

According to Chad Haffenden, a consultant at the UW Information Technology office (and one of the guys who walked me through all this), “a fair number of active users [are] still waiting to make the transition, but most have already moved.” That’s most of about 27,000 undergraduates.

The actual target date is July 1 – so if you’re a UW undergrad or a grad student reading this, it’d be a good idea to get a move on and make the same kind of move I did.

Alpine’s email accounts will expire on that date, but “that won’t mean that all data will be removed,” Haffenden says. It does mean, however, that “students who haven’t moved will need to request access to get access to any mail left behind,” and can do so by e-mailing: [email protected], or more specifically: [email protected]

Faculty and staff can keep their Alpine services for an indeterminate period after that, since this doesn’t affect them – and so I could have also kept it, strictly speaking, since I’m also a teaching assistant (TA).

But if I can make this kind of e-mail exodus, so can you. E-mail’s not my entire academic life, but much of my mind’s work is dependent on it – and so I’m glad now that my head is now in the cloud, so to speak.

Will Mari is a first-year Ph.D. in the UW’s Dept. of Communication, and studies the history of technology and journalism, when he’s not panicking over his e-mail’s imminent death. You can reach him at his snazzy new e-mail address at: [email protected]

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