University Information Systems held a town hall meeting on onday afternoon following rising frustration about instabilities and outages within Georgetown’s e-mail network during the past several weeks. The meeting gave UIS an opportunity to share the challenges they have been faced with, and the steps they are taking to counteract these difficulties.
H. David Lambert, vice president for Information Services and the university’s chief information officer, opened the meeting by apologizing for the instability Georgetown’s computer network has recently experienced.
“I think you all know that over the last several weeks we’ve struggled to maintain what’s an important service of the community,” he said. “We understand the service is an important part of how we work.”
Lambert said that a primary purpose for the meeting was to give those in attendance a context in which to place the problems.
He said that last Friday over 288,000 messages were processed by university computer systems, one-fifth the total volume of messages received by the network on any given day five years ago. UIS must also deal with greater amounts of spam and virus infected messages than ever before.
Georgetown’s system includes “full end-to-end encryption.” Lambert said. Although encryption, a means of using coding processes to transmit e-mail content, offers security benefits, other systems without encryption do not experience as much instability as Georgetown’s does.
The university has implemented a number of solutions in response to the e-mail outages, Lambert explained. In December, UIS upgraded sections of the imap message service, the means used by many students to receive and send e-mails on-line.
UIS has also tried to stop the spread of viruses by actively removing suspicious attachments from mail and utilizing filters to block superfluous spam mailings. Users sending legitimate large-sized attachments must go through special procedures.
Beth Ann Bergsmark, director of Academic and Information Technology Services, said that although filters are a way to help stop the proliferation of spam, schools that had filters in place discovered that spammers could stay ahead of the technology. More obtrusive measures may also raise unresolved issues involving academic freedom, because one way to prevent the spread of viruses involves removing attachments from messages to protect people from accidentally clicking on executable files.
Matthew McNally, the director of Georgetown’s Enterprise Information Services, a specialized subdivision of UIS, helped describe the technological aspects of Georgetown’s network.
He blamed many of the problems on a technological bug built into the system by Sun, one of the university’s technology vendors.
“There’s an error on the store known as the Sun bug. It doesn’t corrupt e-mail but it corrupts index files,” he said.
According to McNally when there is a data corruption, if one person accesses their e-mail, the entire system will crash.
“It’s as if you had a car and got a flat and the entire car explodes,” he said.
Patches released by Sun should help to solve the problem, cNally added.
Despite budget limitations, UIS is working to upgrade other hardware components to ensure that incidences of network outages are reduced.
During a sometimes-heated discussion, audience members urged UIS to work to fix the problems as soon as possible.
One woman asked UIS to proactively stop the spread of spam and improve technological educational services.
“Spam is just killing us,” she said. “With family e-mail there’s a button we can press to stop the spam. We need a way to build serious spam filters.”