NSIT to overhaul webmail service

By Tim Michaels

NSIT said Monday it plans to overhaul the University’s e-mail engine and improve other web services, the day after Chalk was inaccessible to students.

Chalk—the internet forum including teachers’ notes, assignments, and course documents—was down Sunday night, the time that many students traditionally dig into their books to detoxify from the weekend and prepare for classes. According to the Chalk websites, it will be closed for maintenance Sundays from 6 to 11 a.m.

Webmail, a mail system used by many students at the University, has recently been burdened by exceedingly heavy usage, an increasing amount of viruses, and large amounts of unsolicited junk e-mails, often called spam mail. “With over 15 thousand users, the system has grown beyond its capacity to operate,” said Bob Bartlett, director of Enterprise Network Services & Security for NSIT.

Cmore and webmail experienced significant technical difficulties over the summer.

When told that webmail was unavailable for much of the day on July 29, Bartlett said NSIT was unaware of any problem.

At the height of its usage, webmail can experience upwards of 30,000 hits per hour. “We originally did not anticipate that webmail was going to be as popular as it is and expected students to use other mail systems such as Eudora,” said Max Trefonides, ENSA Project Manager.

To address the concern of over-usage, NSIT plans to purchase an entirely new e-mail server infrastructure. The group is currently shopping for a new mail service to replace IMAP, POP, and webmail services. Though this change was expected to have been implemented last quarter, budgetary restrictions postponed it. “This is a large purchase that we will have to live with for years, so it has moved more slowly than we would have liked,” Bartlett said.

Students, who use webmail to communicate, e-mail papers, and keep updated on campus events, often complain that webmail can be slow, function improperly, or otherwise be “extremely frustrating,” as described by first-year in the College Matthew Gunkel.

The mail system was also not designed to protect against the large amount of spam mail and viruses that have plagued the system for months. In response to these concerns, NSIT has purchased an antivirus, anti-spam program called Pure Message to filter out unwanted emails. The program allows viruses being sent through e-mail to be immediately discarded before reaching its destination. If the program predicts that an e-mail has a 70 percent chance of being spam mail it will change the subject of the email to “spam XXX,” with each “x” representing the level of possibility that the email is indeed spam. Mail that the program detects as having a 90 percent chance of being spam is removed from the system and put into quarantine.

The major difference in Pure Message from the filtering systems that NSIT currently uses—such as Real Time Block Lists (RTBL)—is the ability of the user to have more management control.

A study group of 30 students and faculty members were initially very pleased with the new filtering system, which NSIT expects to be fully operational before the end of October. NSIT hopes to replace the mail server completely by the middle of winter quarter.

NSIT also made several changes to the add/drop process for fall quarter. For the first time, students were able to access the site during the entire summer, rather than just during the academic year. This allowed students to change their courses during the summer before they arrived on campus.

During Orientation Week, however, returning college students were not allowed to access the site. “To maximize system performance, better manage course and section seat counts, and ensure a smooth registration process for first-years the add/drop site was closed to returning College students during the day from Tuesday to Friday of Orientation Week while the College advisers conducted first-year registration appointments,” said Alex Henson.

While the changes to the add/drop site were designed to avoid oversubscription to courses and simplify the registration process not all students found the changes helpful. “There was one day you couldn’t even access add/drop,” said second-year in the College Felix Pleszczynski. “I didn’t know which courses I was going to be in until a week before I got here.”

Overall, however, Henson and other administrators at NSIT stated that Orientation went very well from a technological standpoint. “On the Saturday of Orientation week, for instance, we were able to issue almost 1200 IDs to first-years with a long wait being about 15 minutes,” said Henson.

Other new projects at NSIT include a new information system for students called Gargoyle. Although there have been problems integrating the new system, such as web sites being down and the system sometimes running too slowly, most problems reported to the NSIT Tech Line were solved quickly. “In all cases I’m aware of where a student was affected, we were able to resolve problems quickly,” Henson said.