NSIT failure temporarily shuts down e-mail

By Joel Lanceta

A hardware failure in the NSIT server’s machines prevented access to all campus e-mail for several hours on Tuesday, keeping students and faculty from logging into accounts. NSIT said it had warned the campus about its need to temporarily shut down e-mail access via alerts on the University homepage and through Usenet groups and electronic mailing lists.

Plaisance, the machine that provides e-mail service to the University, had a failing memory module, according to Max Trefonides, the program manager for NSIT Voice and Data Networking and ENSA manager. In order to replace the module with a working component, NSIT had to shut down the e-mail server.

“This was not routine,” Trefonides said. “This was also not isolated to Webmail.  Webmail is a system that uses a web interface to connect to the machines that hold our users’ e-mail. Eudora and Pine are also used to connect to the same machines. That means that access to all e-mail was interrupted for a short time.”

Trefonides gave reassurance that the disruption did not do any permanent damage to anyone’s accounts in the University.

“No mail was lost; any mail that was sent to our users during this time was queued on our backup machines until the e-mail server came back on line and then it was delivered shortly thereafter,” Trefonides said.

This is at least the second time this year that Webmail has been down. In early March, Plaisance experienced a severe loss of memory during which NSIT had to shut down Webmail for a day to troubleshoot for the problem. During finals week of Fall Quarter 2002, NSIT’s central mail service experienced substantial slowdowns and interruptions that prevented the University’s 18,000 Webmail users from accessing their accounts.

Many students thought that the downed server meant that NSIT was troubleshooting for a new virus or hackers, or that a new security breach had infiltrated the network. According to a USITE employee who did not wish to be identified, NSIT has troubles with the recent Netsky, Sasser, and Wallon worms in the Chicago network, which cause systems to crash and reboot several times, slow down the systems, and have infected several USITE computers.

Nick Havens, a third-year in the College and an avid computer user, checked his e-mail around 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night and saw the page direct him to the alert indicating that the system was down.

“My first thought was that my security settings were wrong,” Havens said. “I thought NSIT had been messing with the security. They’ve been putting their IMAP on encryption. But then I looked at the NSIT documentation and everything checked out.”

Havens then went to the University homepage, where he saw that the NSIT light alert system had a warning that the e-mail server was shut down due to the installation of new software.

“It was a minor inconvenience,” Havens said, “But it wasn’t that long. The downtime was like only two hours long.”

A second-year in the College who said she checks her e-mail almost 25 times a day, was waiting to hear back from an employer for a prospective summer job when she realized she could not access her e-mail.

“It was a little inconvenient,” she said, “Especially since I was waiting for something important, but it wasn’t like a catastrophe though.”

Trefonides encouraged all students and users of the NSIT system to subscribe to the electronic mail newslists, cluster-news and cluster-info, to get an immediate response when another alert happens.

“We also do our best to alert the various university computer support groups as soon as we can as well,” Trefonides said, “We encourage all users of our systems to subscribe to these lists. This will ensure that important system messages are disseminated to as wide an audience as possible.”

NSIT e-mail is generally unavailable from 4 a.m. until 8 a.m. on Wednesday and Sunday mornings for routine maintenance work.