Sluggish e-mail to speed up with capacity upgrade

Williams Webmail isn’t only lagging in delivering e-mails, but in making upgrades too: e-mail provider Mirapoint recently agreed to double the capacity of the system, but the upgrade, planned for last Saturday, was postponed due to coding problems.

Nevertheless, relief is in sight: the upgrade is now scheduled for this Saturday.

Last Thursday morning, Mark Berman, director for networks and systems, informed the College community by e-mail that Mirapoint’s technician had encountered a limitation in the software on Wednesday night, which forestalled the tests that need to be run prior to the system’s transfer.

“The good news is that this is why we test. It doesn’t affect people if it doesn’t work, other than staying slow,” said Dinny Taylor, chief technology officer of the Office for Information Technology (OIT). “The bad news is the test didn’t work. But they are working as fast as they can to fix the problem and we will test again this week. Hopefully everything will be working by this weekend.” She noted that OIT hoped to complete this upgrade before summer vacation to ensure that the new system works while everyone is on campus.

This upgrade, which is slated to increase the storage for all our mailboxes, is the latest in a series of attempts to reduce what Berman’s e-mail called “the problems we have had all year.” So far this year, OIT has installed a new authentication server and worked to upgrade the system’s memory, install software patches and make hardware replacements.

This development comes less than a year after the College switched to Mirapoint, which occurred on July 28. “When we selected Mirapoint we interviewed many other schools who are very happy using it and who have not had these problems,” Taylor said. “There was no reason to expect these problems.” She added that the College has “plenty of bandwidth,” which does not contribute either to the e-mail or wireless problems.

Wireless Internet

According to Todd Gould, networks and systems administrator, Williams’ wireless problems lie with the “webauth redirect” hardware, a portal that requires users to enter a password and username before logging into the network. Students have frequently encountered empty web browsers when the authorization portal has failed to appear.

“It’s a very sensitive technology,” Gould said of the technology supplied by the College’s wireless provider, Cisco.

At OIT headquarters in Jesup, nine wireless controllers manage approximately 800 access points across campus. Each controller covers a particular area of the campus in order to provide seamless coverage. When students report problems with the authorization portal, Gould pinpoints the controller that manages the problematic access point and reboots it.

Although the rebooting may solve the problem, it also disrupts the connections of those who were previously logged on.
While OIT has attempted to trace the network problem, neither Cisco nor OIT has been able to determine the source.

Over the last three months, Gould has suggested to Cisco that the problem may be due to interference with signals from other appliances, including microwaves and cordless land-line phones. Gould called the College one of the “noisiest and cluttered environments” in terms of airwave pollution.

The most immediate solution is to remove the authorization portal from the controllers. The College is investigating an alternative mechanism, 802.1X authentication, which only connects to the network controllers after a successful log-in.

802.1X was initially passed over as an option because the technology was not developed or stable enough when the College was first installing wireless Internet, but this has since been remedied. “At this point, every wireless device, whether it’s a palm pilot or a blackberry or a laptop or a Nintendo Wii, comes with the ability to use 802.1X authentication,” Gould said. “It’s part of the driver [on each device]. It basically prompts you to enter your user name and password.”

OIT has been testing the new system. “If things go pretty stable for a time then we’ll stay with Cisco,” Gould said, “but if this solution doesn’t work then we will look for a change.” Nonetheless, Gould noted that any alternatives would cost of “millions of dollars” and will not be ready before this fall.

Complaints about spotty wireless Internet service extend to Cisco, which has only recently been providing active support. “Williams is such a small customer to Cisco,” Gould said. “I finally made enough noise that I have a Cisco wireless engineer on campus to work with me almost weekly.”

The problem has been particularly pronounced in the Fitch House area, which is also the test site for two alternative wireless providers, Aruba and Meru. According to Gould, student feedback has been positive, potentially “rank[ing] Aruba number one.”

Additional reporting by Yue-Yi Hwa, news editor.

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