Beginning early in the morning of Thursday, Jan. 19, the university community experienced a Webmail outage which provided many students, faculty and staff with limited access to their campus e-mail accounts. The quandary was caused by a Storage Area Network failure, which increased in severity, reaching its worst point toward the end of the day.
Webmail users experienced varied levels of accessibility during the day, resulting from a glitch in communication with the storage system. Some users could not access any webmail. After two days of around-the-clock efforts by Information Technology Services staff to identify and fix the hardware failure, ordinary service resumed early Saturday.
The UR community experienced an “unavoidable hardware failure,” Interim Chief Information Officer and Vice Provost David Lewis said. The problem “degraded increasingly, limiting access on Thursday.”
ITS is proud of their technology infrastructure. “Most [university] services are robust enough that the technology never fails,” Lewis said. “Sometimes, you just can’t use them.”
Not all technology is perfect, however. “Though uncommon, every university with information technology experiences these different problems from time to time,” Associate Vice Provost and Director of ITS Eric Fredericksen said.
ITS staff first noticed the impeding effects of the SAN failure early Thursday morning. At this time, they implemented a problem identification protocol. The problem was detected immediately because ITS maintains at least some staff on-site 24 hours a day.
“Once the problem was identified, systematic procedures were executed to minimize service disruption,” Fredericksen said. “The problem was taken extremely seriously, using every resource for correction over a continuous 48 hour period.”
Though an e-mail predicament of this magnitude has not occurred recently, Lewis explains that in order to decrease the likelihood of such an occurrence, ongoing processes and system reviews are conducted. Additionally, ITS will try to provide more redundant service components.
There is no way to completely eliminate the threat of downtime, however. “Sometimes technology just doesn’t work,” Fredericksen said.
Should students experience other Webmail related problems, Technology Projects and Communications Manager Michelle Rogers encourages students to access ITS news at its homepage under the notices section. ITS news may also be viewed on the Webmail login page or heard by calling ITS at x5-2000.
The recent e-mail problem follows upon the heels of a moderate redesign of the Webmail interface in order to increase ease of use. These changes, however, are purely superficial in nature and are not to be held responsible for the malfunction.
No significant changes have been made to the Webmail hardware in the past year.
The trouble also occurs in the wake of increasing student use of alternate free e-mail services such as Gmail. Some students are also using standalone software such as Microsoft Outlook to which Webmail forwards communications.
Students express frustration with Webmail, citing general unreliability and difficulty in handling attachments. Other reasons range from user inability to modify fonts to recent difficulties in displaying attached pictures in e-mail.
“Webmail doesn’t allow me to archive e-mail into groups. I do like the new ‘purge trashcan’ feature though,” junior Robert Warner said.
“Personally, I think Webmail is very limiting. There is no way to make chosen text a hyperlink,” said senior Jennifer Ostromecki. “One of the best features Gmail offers is that you can read part of the email’s contents without opening the message. Webmail just doesn’t measure up.”
Despite student complaints, Lewis wishes to be more effective in communication with students and places emphasis on I.T. support for them. He explains that ITS wishes to create a sense of community through the Webmail service by making it easy for university intra-communications. He has also expresses interest in formulating an ITS-student focus group to identify facets that could use improvement.
Chelis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.