In face of recurring problems, ITS remains upbeat

By Matt Won

Faced with continual reliability issues and communications difficulties last year, Information Technology Services now has a new leader, a new philosophy, and more goodies to spare.

Despite the failed email upgrade this summer and a debacle with email accounts for first-years, an internet bandwidth increase, new leadership, and a new user-guided operating philosophy have ITS staff stoked for the new academic year.

First year follies
“Technology is always two steps forward and one step backward,” said Ted Fines, Assistant Director for Networked Services. The same might be said of the ITS plan to change email account naming conventions to prevent identical naming. (Steve Jones would not be happy to be receiving Susan Jones’ feminine product advertisements, for example).

While accounts were created under the old convention (sjones), new ones were also created. Steve Jones also got a jones0003. On Sept. 2, ITS made the official switch to the new naming scheme.

Unfortunately, on Sept. 5 ITS staff discovered a bug in the system that prevented email from being sent to the new addresses. All email sent there was lost. At that point, ITS decided to stick with the old naming system.

“It kind of confused me,” said transfer student Leah Brown ’09. “They told me I had a new email account, and then they were like, ‘Oh, we lied.'”

“The new philosophy could be seen as treating students like a number, which Macalester is against,” Fines said.

Why ITS says internet will be faster
It’s no secret that Macalester’s internet experience this year has been slower than last year.

“I have heard that and I’ve experienced that too,” Fines said.

Macalester’s current internet connection is 15-megabits.

“We’ve had that now for two years, and I think we’ve just outgrown it. Demand is always growing higher,” Fines said.

ITS has ordered another 5-megabits from Onvoi, Macalester’s Internet Service Provider. The upgrade should occur within the week, and comes at a cost of an extra $300 per month. Theoretically, this means that your internet connection should be 33 percent faster.

Last year, a piece of equipment called PacketShaper prioritized network traffic, but failed to stop file-sharing applications like BitTorrent from clogging the system. Last year, a single BitTorrent user could take up 2/3 of the campus’s bandwidth. PacketShaper also interfered with legitimate activity, like WMCN’s online radio webcast.

“Our bandwidth control device now is called the Net Equalizer, and it does a great job of controlling the [hogging of bandwidth by peer-to-peer applications],” Fines said. NetEqualizer “works much more simply,” by limiting the number of simultaneous internet connections for each computer.

Fines also has good news for gamers.

“The PacketShaper never worked well with games. With online games, the latency was just too high. It was just too slow of a box. The NetEqualizer is so much quicker that we don’t get complaints now from gamers. In fact, I don’t get any complaints about any particular application since we’ve moved to it.”

A new sheriff in town
For much of the last academic year, ITS operated without a leader, following the departure of former head Joel Clemmer. Enter Jerry Sanders, fresh from 24 years of experience at Loyola University Chicago, with two years under his belt as head of IT at that college.

Sanders was hired after an intensive four-month search. He began work this summer as Associate Vice President for Information Technology Services.

His priorities?
“Number one, basic services,” Sanders said. “Macalester, in the hiring process, made it quite clear that they wanted to address that and just get those things fixed.”

His first major decision, to stay with OCS 9 instead of upgrading to version 10, was based on this philosophy, Sanders said.

Top on his agenda is drawing up a statement of ITS’ philosophy in line with President Brian Rosenberg’s long-term strategic goals.

“One of the things that I really believe in about IT organizations in higher education is that unless they’re tightly aligned with the mission of the institution they’ll end up doing the wrong thing and not be effective,” Sanders said.

OCS woes: The failed migration
This past summer, Macalester was scheduled to migrate from version 9 of our webmail client, Oracle Collaboration Suite, to version 10. The webmail system was taken down completely over several days to accomplish that task, yet the migration failed.

“We had Oracle here, they were actually running it, it was their show, but they couldn’t get it done in time, so we just had to back out of it and not do it for this academic year,” Fines said.

Irregularities, including accounts logging in with no mail and odd error messages appearing, gave ITS staff second thoughts.

“We asked Oracle ‘What is this? We can’t have this happening.’ They weren’t able to answer it,” Fines said. “They didn’t know why it happened. They knew about the behavior. They said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve seen that, don’t worry about that, it just happens that one time and then it’ll go away,'” Fines said.

“That’s just not a good introduction to a new system.”

The ITS plan for any future migration to OCS 10 will be gradual, with voluntary testers from students and faculty working out the bugs with ITS, “instead of dumping everyone onto the new system all at once.” Fines said.

“We were looking at OCS 10…and our main criterion was reliability and we came to the conclusion, as we worked with it and tested it, that we weren’t confident that it was more reliable than OCS 9,” said Sanders.

OCS 9 is performing “smoother” this year, but “We’re still having to do more babysitting of the system than we’d care to,” Fines said.

One problem has been that “after a number of days of running, webmail just stops working.”

A patch is on the way to fix this problem, but in the meantime the “babysitting” means taking the system down occasionally between 3:00 am and 6:00 a.m., Fines said.

Last Sunday’s outage, from 8:30-10:00 p.m., was not part of that program.

“Boy, we’re very aware that doing that on a Sunday night is terrible” Fines said. “That was not scheduled.”

ITS is continuing to pressure Oracle.

“We really want to exhaust all of the resources that Oracle can provide us with to try to make it work,” Sanders said.

This included having an Oracle staffer onsite all summer.

“We have had some of their best people working on it offsite and onsite several days a week.”
“We expect that it will look much better than it ever has even at this point, but that’s still not good enough,” Sanders said. “It should always work, it should be 24/7 and that’s the goal. I mean it’s just email; these days, email should work.”

As you like it: the future of ITS
It’s a whole new paradigm, as Scott Adams might say. Sanders is planning the creation of a Technology Advisory Committee made up of faculty, students, and staff, to guide ITS as community representatives.

“They’ll say ‘We want IT to research this, come back to us with the costs, the implications, best practices, and tell us how you’ll implement it,'” Sanders said.

This would be a change of pace for a department that has been plagued with concerns about communication.

“We’re surrounded by students but we have such a hard time finding a good communication channel,” Fines said.

Also in the pipeline this year are Corporate Time accounts for students, the scheduling program currently used by faculty and staff that allows users to set meetings online and have email notifications and reminders sent. The student accounts were made financially feasible when the program’s licensing changed from a per-account fee to a site license.

In the long term, ITS is also investigating the possibility of replacing OCS with Google’s Gmail webmail client.

“We are looking into it and following it
very closely, because certainly it’s attractive for us to be able to outsource something like that,” Fines said.

And should the migration to OCS 10 be completed by next year, students will be able to look forward to features like a built-in server for instant messaging with any chat program compatible with the open source application Jabber.