Australian university dumps Google for Microsoft over data hosting location concerns

Macquarie University is abandoning Google after the company said it would move the data to the US

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Credit: Screenshot by Peter Sayer

It's little surprise that European governments prefer to host their data in Europe than in the U.S. -- but now even Australian academics are expressing a preference for the Old World over the New.

On Monday, the CIO of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, told staff that Google can no longer be entrusted with their email and calendars because it plans to host them in the U.S., and not the European Union. 

"Data security is our top priority at Macquarie University, and following a decision made by Google to move our stored data from Europe to the United States, we initiated a market search to look at alternative options," CIO Mary Davies wrote in a letter to staff.

Macquarie's choice is another U.S. company, Microsoft: By year end, staff mailboxes and calendars will migrated to Office 365, hosted in Microsoft's Australian data centers.

Google has no data centers in Australia: Its nearest to Sydney are in Taiwan and Singapore, and it also has four in Europe and eight in the Americas.

But Google makes no promises to Google Apps users about where their data will be hosted. "Your data will be stored in Google's network of data centers. Google maintains a number of geographically distributed data centers," is as close as the service's support pages come to answering the question "Where is my organization's data stored?"

Company representatives in London were not immediately able to explain why Macquarie's data would have been hosted in Europe, nor why it might be moved to the U.S. 

Macquarie is only concerned about the hosting of academics' email and calendars: Other staff documents held in Google's cloud, including those stored in Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and Drive, are unaffected by the move, at least for now. Davies promised a separate review of those services in 2016. 

Student email too will remain on Gmail, and they will still be expected to collaborate with staff using Google Apps.

The university began tests of Office 365 six months ago, and over 90 staff have already migrated their mailboxes, Davies wrote.

While she portrayed the move from Google's data centers to Microsoft's as being about security and data privacy, she also mentioned that the local hosting might make accessing data faster. Microsoft has data centers in New South Wales, the state in which Sydney lies, and in Victoria, just to the South, which will certainly reduce latency compared to Singapore, 6,300 kilometers away as the crow flies.

China, although not named in Davies' letter, could be another factor in the switch.

Access to Gmail is "restricted in some countries," she wrote, complicating life for staff traveling to those places, whether to recruit international students, collaborate with local academics, or visit Macquarie students abroad. The biggest market in which Google is restricted is China, a significant source of fee-paying international students for Macquarie.

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