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E-mail outages blamed on overworked system

February 17, 2011

The most recent University e-mail outages could have more to do with user practices than some may think.

Mary-Alice Muraski, manager of the Teaching and Learning Technologies division of the Department of Technology Services, summed it up in one word: ”Overstuffed.”

Some stories of the outages were more tragic than others. Angela Jensen, a senior majoring in animal science, lost the adoption of a dog.

“I lost the adoption of a Boxer,” said Jensen, who had been attempting to adopt “Shiloh” for over three weeks.

An e-mail was sent to her saying she was granted the adoption and when they did not hear back from her, the opportunity was given to another family.

“I was just frustrated,” replied Jensen, who is now looking again for a new dog to adopt.

Students commenting on the UWRF’s official Facebook page and came up with a few reasons why the e-mail system, SquirrelMail, was down. One being “maybe the squirrels thought it was too cold to send e-mails today.”

Yet there is no one source of the issue, said Steve Reed, chief information officer and director of DoTS. Instead, different underlying factors that have been building up over time.

The e-mail system has been in place since 2002, and Reed believes one of the major issues is that the system is outdated.

“Our volume continues to increase,” said Reed, and with no e-mail accounts deleted since 2003, the University supports 39,000 different accounts. With up to 65 percent of these accounts over 80 percent of their overall capacity, this does not help the situation.

Another issue is the large number of e-mails the system has to process every day. On any given day, Reed said there are between 400,000 and 500,000 e-mails that need to be processed. Only 80,000 to 100,000 are sent through, with the remaining being spam e-mails. On Feb. 10, the University allowed 93,000 e-mails to go to university account holders.

The sheer number of people checking their e-mails has also been slowing the system down. On any given weekday there can be up to 8,000 people reading e-mails, said Reed.

DoTS has recognized that the spring and fall start-ups do accumulate the most “hits,” which include every time someone logs on from their laptop, smart phone or even iPod Touch.

Muraski commented that it seemed “everyone got new phones for Christmas,” and the increase in hits slowed the system down dramatically and participated in the crash of the delicate system.

The good news is that students actually do have a part in helping keep the system up and running until is replaced, which will be in the next 12 months, said Reed.

Here are some ways DoTS said students can help keep e-mail running smoothly:

  • Keep the inbox clear: Process all messages, retain only necessary e-mails and clean out other folders.
  • Turn off Facebook notifications: Send them to an off-campus e-mail and use the UWRF e-mail for campus purposes.
  • Empty the sent-box and trash: Clean these out regularly and keep only necessary sent e-mails.
  • Use FalconFile: Instead of e-mailing large projects or files back and forth, upload them to Falcon File and access the information from anywhere. This is useful for group projects with the creation of a folder that can be accessible to all group members.
  • Be patient: Over-clicking does not solve the problem and only slows the old system down even more.

These five ways will not fix the problem, but will help the system so there is not another major outage before it is replaced. DoTS has been working around the clock to ensure the e-mail stays up and asks everyone to be patient while the problem is worked out.

Patrick Jones, a student networking technician for DoTS, has been working on the issue and feels the frustration as well but says the biggest thing is “we appreciate people being understanding.”