Williams Webmail and the wireless network have irked users throughout the semester with spotty accessibility. On Sunday, both were simultaneously malfunctioning so that Webmail, Blackboard and Peoplesoft were all unreachable.
According to the Office for Information Technology (OIT), the cause of the wireless problems experienced on campus, including hours of network failure and unreliable download speed, lies with the company providing the wireless network, Cisco, over which OIT has no control. According to Mark Berman, director of networks and services at the OIT, Cisco has not been informative or clear about the nature of these issues and potential solutions. “We’re battling with Cisco. We assume there is some kind of a memory leak,” Berman said. “This means that memory is being allocated, and due to this, there is less and less memory available.” In other words, when a student goes to the network login page, bandwidth being used elsewhere in the system causes the page to be unresponsive. To combat these frequent failures, OIT must reboot controllers at least once a week.
Employees of OIT have been disturbed by the issues with the network, especially given the renown of Cisco. They are now studying other potential network manufacturers, Aruba and Meru, as well as considering forcing Cisco to fix these problems. Meru is currently being tested in Fitch House, and after spring break, it will be replaced with Aruba. OIT has been taking polls to evaluate student opinion of the test wireless systems.
The College pays for 120 megabits of bandwidth for its wireless network, which costs around a quarter-million dollars per year. To give perspective on this figure, Berman said that the standard household uses about three to five megabits. The amount of bandwidth purchased remains relatively stable from year to year, but doubles every four years.
As students have begun to use the Internet in more aspects of their lives at the College, increasing bandwidth on the wireless network has become a necessity. The proliferation of videos, music downloads and applications such as Skype require much more bandwidth than e-mail or basic websites. “Nowadays people are downloading a lot of things, whether it be iTunes, legal downloads, movie trailers or illegal downloads from programs like Limewire,” Berman said. “Our first big issue was a few years ago with a Star Wars movie. All of our bandwidth totally pegged and was all used up.”
Although the use of bandwidth for illegal downloads and file-sharing is not condoned, OIT has no intent to seek out and punish offenders. Peer-to-peer sharing takes up a significant amount of bandwidth, but the server does not currently block it. “Our attitude is that students are adults and can handle their actions,” Berman said.
Despite its now widespread use, wireless Internet was installed only three years ago on campus. “I dragged my feet about it as long as possible. I didn’t think that wireless technology was ready to support the campus,” Berman said. The use of wireless was first limited to specific areas that all had to be individually controlled, requiring extra resources and time. Now it is centrally controllable, which is more efficient and user-friendly. There are currently 784 access points for the network on campus, allowing all of the College’s buildings wireless access. There is not a wireless structure for the outdoors, although wireless can be obtained outside of most buildings. “We’ve made no attempt to do anything wireless-related outdoors because of the weather,” Berman said. However, wireless leaking allows access outside. The walls and shape of a building determine the extent of leaking. Thicker walls more effectively block signals. “Co-op houses, with their wood frames, get great signals, while Mission’s concrete walls prevent most leaking,” Berman said.
This academic year, Mirapoint was installed as the College’s new webmail provider. It is a self-contained system, meaning that once it was installed OIT could not change anything about the program. “It was intended to be less maintenance work, but unfortunately it hasn’t worked out that way,” Berman said, referencing the fact that Mirapoint also has a memory-leak problem. These problems are not exclusive to Williams, but have also been reported at the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado.
Berman referred to student behavior of allowing mail to accumulate in their inboxes or saving messages in folders without deleting them as a contributor to the problem. Attempted solutions have been to increase webmail memory by half and to add patches for memory leaks. Both of these steps seemed to initially improve the system, but results have been inconsistent. If three gigabytes are not sufficient, webmail resorts to using memory on a disk, which is a potential cause of slow speed.
OIT has taken to restarting webmail whenever there are issues. “We restart it three or four times a week. It happens so quickly that most people wouldn’t notice it,” Berman said, adding that OIT is actively discussing long-term solutions for Mirapoint. “They are talking about potentially giving us another appliance, which would increase the maximum memory of webmail. Our concern is that our problems will just follow us,” he said.