May 7, 2002

NSIT apologizes for rocky Telnet transition

The University's network systems information technology's (NSIT) plans to change to secure Telnet this past Wednesday resulted in complications that forced a return to the option of non-secure Telnet. This week, systems will be down from 2 until 6 a.m. every morning (instead of only the regular Wednesday and Sunday updates) in an effort to have the system back to normal by the end of the week. Meanwhile students will be allowed to access their e-mail via non-secure Telnet.

"We don't want to complicate things by making too many changes," said Bob Bartlett, assistant director of Network Security and Enterprise Network Systems Administration, about maintaining the non-secure Telnet for an extended period.

On Wednesday evening, the day that the switch to only secure Telnet was supposed to occur, students received an e-mail message from Bartlett. The e-mail was an apology and an explanation of the delays that had occurred in people's mail service due to complications in the mail server, known as plaisance. These delays and difficulties were not expected by NSIT.

While switching to the secure Telnet, NSIT also installed a new device to distribute e-mail over two disks, instead of one central disk. This ultimate goal of splitting up the mail to two different disks is to make the e-mail access faster.

"People using the system won't notice the difference, but their e-mail won't be competing with one another," said Bartlett.

The new system was set up without the Kerberos test, so people who had set up their computers to access Kerberized Telnet were unable to access their e-mail through Telnet. The software is now properly installed and the entire program will be finished by the end of this week.

Another problem that emerged during the transition to secure Telnet and FTP systems was the discovery that the system was not just slow, but close to a transition state.

"A transition state is the straw that breaks the camel's back. It's a small change with grave consequences. Suddenly it hit a point where things went from very slow to problematic," said Bartlett.

Although Bartlett stated in his letter to the student body that "they don't know exactly why this happened" one possible reason was the large number of people using one system, Webmail, to access their mailboxes on Wednesday. Other probable causes were too much traffic going through one disk, an inherent problem in the software, and a buildup of previous problems with the entire mail system.

"We've been hit very hard by spam mail and escalating cases of viruses from Microsoft window boxes," Bartlett said.

Despite the fact that the delivery of people's e-mail was delayed, Bartlett said that he had received no reports of people missing any expected e-mails.

When Bartlett talked to Sun Microsystems, the creators of the plasiance, they suggested that the problem causing the delays was that the system was too small. NSIT is trying to remedy this by creating more disks for the mail and by switching to a larger server.

"The new system will do everything the old system does but the entire system will be faster and more powerful," Bartlett said about the new machine the school purchased. It will have eight times the power of the current machine. The machine should be installed in June and ready for the new school year in September.

In his letter Bartlett mentioned that the school was looking into commercial options for a server. These commercial servers limit the number of ways that people can access their mail. This is one of the reasons the school has previously avoided installing one of these commercial options.

"The commercial servers don't support all these options. If we have to switch to a commercial software we will have to make changes to have people access their mail in a way that the system supports their access to the mail" Bartlett said. Some of these changes would mean having to exchange using Pine for more IMAP-like services.

Although these switches and subsequent complications may be a nuisance to students, the University is one of the only ones connected to a single service.

"Most of the colleges I've looked into, like Northwestern, do not have a single mail service," Bartlett said.

This means that students are assigned to different servers and that means more information has to be supplied by the student when accessing his or her e-mail account.

Despite the delays, students on the whole have been very positive about the changes in their service. Bartlett said he received approximately 100 messages in response to his e-mail apologizing for the service delays.

"About 95 percent of them were extremely nice. It was very surprising," Bartlett said.

Out of the five remaining e-mails, two of them were from people offering to solve the current problem themselves, for a fee.