Webmail woes frustrate students, professors

Cheryl McEvoy

Whether reading the Newswire, sending a note to a professor or receiving reminders about upcoming meetings, college students depend on e-mail. Along with Instant Messaging and Facebook stalking, checking e-mail has become a compulsive behavior, especially when the convenience of instant delivery often leaves a student’s inbox flooded with new messages every day. Unfortunately, this dependency intensifies the anxiety on those dreaded days when e-mail is inaccessible. As much as students hate to sift through junk mail or be reminded of impending exam dates, being mysteriously barred from accessing messages due to unpredictable and often frustrating technology is even worse.

“It is inconvenient when [Webmail] is down for the entire day,” senior Courtney Dean said.

Last week, students struggled with frequent interruptions in their Webmail service, and a major outage on Oct. 30 prevented students from checking their inboxes for over six hours. While the interruptions were inconvenient, some students were particularly stressed by the outage.

“It’s just really frustrating because I don’t have a printer, so I e-mail papers to myself and print them off in the labs,” junior Tara Horan said. “It sounds like such a lame excuse when you tell your teacher that you couldn’t print your paper.”

Many students use Webmail to send files to the print labs or e-mail assignments to professors, and service interruptions pose an obstacle to these normally simple tasks. Last week’s outage also occurred during a stressful time of the school year, as planning and registering for next semester’s classes often makes the ability to communicate with professors and advisors crucial.

The unpredictability of service interruptions has led some students to seek alternatives to Webmail.

“To be honest, I don’t even use [the University] e-mail,” junior Christa Gross admitted. “I get all of my messages from Webmail forwarded to Gmail [Google’s e-mail service].”

Despite recent difficulties with the University’s technological network, Daniel McGee, director of operations and academic infrastructure at UNIT, recognizes the benefit of Villanova’s Web services.

“Many of our technology systems are integrated, and the value is that … it’s the same system whether checking e-mail, logging on the Web or using WebCT,” he said.

The recent interruptions were more often due to problems in the network rather than Webmail itself, according to McGee.

“The e-mail is tied into some other systems that are connected to your password that you use when logging in – it’s called the LDAP. We had to reboot the LDAP system Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which for students meant that you could not access e-mail,” McGee said.

Other interruptions were caused by unrelated equipment failures and battery replacements.

McGee also explained that the outage on Oct. 30 was due to an accumulation of transaction log files that resulted from restarting the Webmail service.

“We tried to continue to process these files while keeping the mail system up,” McGee said, but despite UNIT’s efforts to prevent an outage, “we had to bring the system down to process the files and then rebuild the mailboxes – these are the processes we do to handle these problems – and that took until 7:30 that evening.”

McGee is confident that the service was restored in as timely a manner as possible.

“All of our systems have automatic monitoring, so when Webmail is interrupted, some of our staff are notified. We don’t have anyone here on the weekend, but as soon as we get an alert on the monitor, we go into diagnosis.”

However, he admitted that recovery was delayed due to multiple causes within the network, which “required investigating other systems that did not appear to be malfunctioning.”

McGee assured students that UNIT will continue to work to make the University’s Webmail and Internet services available and reliable.

“The adjustments we made I am confident will prevent this kind of a major outage,” he said. “Our goal is to always keep these systems as stable as possible.”

UNIT also provides on-campus support services to students, faculty and staff in the event of a computer or technological problem. TechZONE is located in Vasey 101, where staff and technicians are available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Support Services can also be reached by e-mailing [email protected] or by calling 9-7777.

Despite the inevitable difficulties with technology, the Internet and e-mail are increasingly crucial parts of education. Therefore, until systems are further advanced, it appears that students can only cross their fingers in hopes to avoiding future service interruptions. McGee, however, remains realistically confident in Villanova’s technology services. “It’s a complicated technology but the value of it is essential,” he said.