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WebMail woes continue as usage rises

Instructor and doctoral student Andrew Herrmann promised students in his Group Communications class a review sheet Saturday for their Monday exam. But when WebMail crashed Saturday, Herrmann was forced to wait until Sunday to send the review, putting students in the strange position of waiting on a professor to start their studies.

“The whole WebMail situation is totally unacceptable,” said Herrmann, who used to work at St. Louis University as an information technology coordinator. “You name it, I’ve had problems with it.”

WebMail crashed for the third time in as many months Saturday, resurrecting complaints from students and faculty frustrated by the recurring problems. Administrators from Academic Computing, who restored all services Sunday at 7 a.m., said problems are likely to recur unless they get the needed funding for hardware upgrades for the e-mail server.

“As of right now the system is up, but since we don’t know the cause of the crashes, we are looking at a ticking time bomb with no display telling us when it’s going to go off,” Assistant Director of Academic Computing Alex Campoe said in an e-mail.

After Saturday’s crash, engineers from Sun Microsystems began examining the problem with the WebMail servers in earnest, Campoe said. Preliminary results have pointed to hardware issues with the data storage system.

Academic Computing has found “homegrown solutions” to address some of the problems, but the University has not budgeted the funds needed for a system that can handle the volume of usage, Campoe said.

“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

These homegrown solutions have fallen short of stemming the rising tide of discontent among undergraduate and graduate students. Spurred by the latest inconveniences, Herrmann, who also created the USF Facebook group “ sucks,” sent a letter to USF President Judy Genshaft asking her to “get this situation rectified.”

“Eventually you get to the point where you have to say, ‘OK, how am I supposed to get any work done?'” Herrmann said.

Andrew Rohne, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering also sent a letter to Genshaft, as well as student body President Frank Harrison and senate President Barclay Harless, urging them to “look into the situation” and make “any needed changes.”

Graduate students may be even more acutely affected by the failures than undergraduates. They need WebMail to communicate, not only for classes they are taking, but also with students they are teaching. Many also use WebMail as a proxy storage system for documents related to research and grant proposals.

An increasing thrust toward electronic communication and the University’s emphasis on moving more classes online makes it imperative that the WebMail system is reliable, said Jason Simms, a doctoral student in applied anthropology.

“In this type of atmosphere, it is entirely unacceptable to have any significant downtime with these servers,” said Simms, who also worked as a programmer and hardware analyst at the University of Tennessee before he began his graduate studies.

In anticipation of future problems, e-mail administrators have begun copying all the data from the WebMail servers to a second server so they can decrease down time. They are also configuring new storage devices to replace current ones, which will solve corruption issues and lay the foundation for a system that can better handle the growing number of users, Campoe said. The system Academic Computing wants is capable of duplicating everything in separate places so there is never data loss or down time. It would cost $500,000 initially with $180,000 yearly maintenance, funds not currently in Academic Computing’s budget.

Over the last three years, WebMail usage has increased by more than 200 percent and has outstripped funding for needed upgrades. The last time funding was earmarked for any e-mail improvements was 1998. The user population then was around 60, Campoe said.

Nine years later, that population has grown to more than 100,000 with an average of 460,000 e-mails sent every day.

“We have had a meteoric rise in education technology by the faculty and students,” said Director of Academic Computing John Llewellyn. “USF hasn’t tilted its resources in that direction yet because I don’t think any administrator was really hypersensitive to that area.”

Trends indicate use will continue to grow exponentially, making it critical for the University to have a system that can handle the load.

“We just broke the 100,000 mark on the mail server,” Campoe said. “That’s larger than most cities.”

As a Carnegie Tier I Research Institution, USF has spent millions on technical and administrative upgrades, but Campoe said that attitude hasn’t extended to WebMail. When administrators perceive that technological problems have escalated to the level of an emergency, changes have been made, said Llewellyn, who points to quick efforts by the University to address problems with Blackboard.

“The faculty was disenchanted and so were the students, so Provost (Renu Khator) acted very quickly to provide us with extra funding,” Llewellyn said. “USF is so engaged in its other developments that sometimes you have to have a single event to get attention.”