Short Circuit: Macalesterƒ?TMs infamous Information Technology Services department

By Matt Won

Camped on the third floor of the Humanities building, the embattled Information Technology Services (ITS), formerly Computing and Information Technology (CIT), has struggled in recent years with its image on campus.
“Improving our services, our public relations and our communication to win back trust from the community” are the biggest challenges for ITS, said Ted Fines, Assistant Director for Networked Services. The recent name change, from the familiar CIT to ITS has been part of a reorientation of the department’s goals following a shakeup, as it seeks to improve both its image and its services.

Fines cites traditionally low staffing levels as a big part of CIT/ITS’s problems. The effects of low staffing levels are not always obvious. It’s hard to implement new and creative solutions or services “when you spend all your time just maintaining a baseline,” Fines said. ITS staff lack the time to invest in time-saving, efficient solutions, like writing programs to automate processes that they now must maintain manually. He said ITS is able to function despite the lack of bodies “in the way that laziness is a virtue because you find a better way to do something because you don’t like to spend a lot of work on something.”
For Mac students, those staffing problems show themselves most acutely in terms of problems with Oracle Collaboration Suite (OCS), and replacement of last year’s much-maligned Mulberry.

Fines said the OCS problems “seem unique to us from everything I can tell. Believe me, we did our homework, talking to other Oracle customers and doing our research.” In finding remedies to the ailing OCS, ITS communicated with the Oracle Corporation itself as well as a consulting firm. “If we’d had an inkling, if they’d said, ‘Oh, it crashes, it’s unreliable,’ we wouldn’t have picked it.”

As part of the campaign to regain trust on campus, the status and records of almost all ITS processes are available online in real-time for total transparency. OCS is typically available over 99 percent of the time. “Just based on people’s reactions, yeah, that’s not good enough. And we know that, it’s not like we’re saying, ‘Oh, but it’s fine how it is, it’s perfectly acceptable’—no it isn’t, we’re not saying that at all, it’s down too much and we think so too,” Fines said.

Until recent hires have begun work, ITS has had two lower-level positions vacant. “Without those we’re really slow. Now that we get those two people in we’re going to be able to make more headway on email,” Fines said.

Several fixes in the past few months seem to have improved the situation. At the very least, this semester Macalester students have been spared the false self-esteem boosts of 500 emails in a single day.

A hefty chair now lies empty in a vacant room, as ITS is now a republic without a president, and has continued operating despite the departure of former head Joel Clemmer. Clemmer oversaw the now-defunct Information Services, which included the library as well as Media Services. The search for his replacement should conclude by the end of March.
“Whenever there’s a big change, we can step back and look at what we really do. Computing is an older word for an older generation,” said Associate Director David Sisk. CIT “sounded a little Fustian. We’re focusing on services because that’s what we provide—not computers.”

For many Macalester students, the service that really matters is the internet, which has proved to be the nexus of many ITS-related headaches. Their new Campus Manager application gives them the ability to pinpoint any registered computer and immediately quarantine virus-infected computers, cutting off any traffic coming in or out. Before this system, the ITS staff had to physically trace the right connection among the school’s hundreds of internet ports in a tedious and time-consuming process.

“If someone’s computer gets infected with a virus it’s going to spew that crud out all over the system. Say it gets hacked…we’d find the compromised computer, isolate it, and quarantine it. It’s not punitive, it’s just ‘Let us help you, what’s wrong with it,’ but it’s for protection,” said Sisk.
With the inherent properties of a network like Macalester’s making connecting to the internet something like stepping into a roomful of flu patients in a sneezing contest, registration, which was also implemented last year, and the Campus Manager have proven high priorities for ITS. “It really does cut down on problems hugely, no question about it,” said Fines.

Downloading:
The post-Napster world of illegal downloading has created a contest of offense and defense between file sharers and those like ITS trying to mitigate the fallout. An application called PacketShaper sorts network traffic, putting a low priority on likely recreational activity, but it has proved insufficient recently in managing the bandwidth shared by all on the Macalester network. A new file-sharing application, BitTorrent, encrypts its traffic specifically to circumvent PacketShapers like the one that Macalester uses.

While the Macalester website sees a peak of about 1,000 connections, single students using BitTorrent have peaked at 31,000 connections, meaning that just one user on one computer can take up two-thirds of the bandwidth that the entire college must share. The connection speed of everyone else sharing that bandwidth suffers accordingly. “It’s just hogging resources—it’s like there’s five candy bars and I just grabbed four of them and you two get to split one,” said Desktop/LAN consultant Jacob Dorer.
While BitTorrent users grab more than their share, legitimate users like WMCN have found PacketShaper’s limitations problematic. “The webcast is obviously a very demanding user of bandwidth, and without these restrictions lifted it sounds like garbage because it stops to [reconnect] every few seconds,” WMCN Web and Office Manager Nick Malecek said. “WMCN has been actively trying to improve its webcast. Every time we contact them [ITS] about this, they say they will look into it, then it seems to improve, but I’m never sure if anything is really fixed.” WMCN’s webcast has gone down completely several times over the last few weeks, including most of Feb. 24.
While ITS awaits a patch to help the PacketShaper control the new BitTorrent, the firewall installed during J-term allows the staff to monitor the traffic from each internet connection. This has been used to detect and quarantine those using the latest BitTorrent.

This activity doesn’t go unnoticed either. ITS has received 23 cease-and-desist letters from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) since September 2005. The letters list an IP address as well as the infringing conduct. Fortunately, the staff at ITS is no more a friend of the recording industry than the average Che-channeling Macalester revolutionary.

“We don’t give students’ names to the RIAA, we talk to the student, they talk to the Dean, it gets taken care of, and the problem goes away,” Sisk said. “We don’t do prior review. I’d rather cut my foot off than go rooting through students’ folders.”

ITS Communicates:
“We’re kind of the undertaker—the only time you ever talk to us is if you have a problem. People get embarrassed; they don’t need to be. We don’t laugh behind people’s backs—more like behind closed doors,” said Dorer.

The ITS help desk, open from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. daily, only covers a limited range of software issues, and does not support hardware. Staff computers always take priority, meaning student computers often have slow turnover times. “We have lots of continuity problems. We keep having to pass computers from one person to another. That’s the reason we have computers piling up,” said student help-desk worker Jacob Bell ’08. “We’ll often spend ten hours on a computer,” ITS Help Desk Worker Kaye Utzinger ’06 said. “Sometimes a worker will have to come back to a computer two days later.”

As measured in correspondence, Ted Fines may be the best friend of mo
re than a few awkward students. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback that we’ve tried to do more communicating with people,” Fines said, who seemed unaware of students who feel they get too much mail. “They really appreciate that so we need to keep that up and increase it.”
This communication issue may be at the heart of the disconnect that has put ITS on the defensive. “Although we have a website, a lot of that info isn’t getting to each student. We have information distribution problems. People obviously haven’t read our frequent emails,” Utzinger said.

In terms of regaining the community’s trust, “You know you have to hit 100 percent for a few years before they’ll go ‘okay maybe you have fixed things’ So we recognize that it’s kind of an uphill battle but people here on the campus are good to us,” Fines said. “I do think it’s a feasible goal but I do realize that it’s something that’s gonna take years to turn around, literally.”