Upgrades to fix persistent Webmail woes

Technology officials said they will begin upgrading Webmail software this winter to combat problems persistently plaguing students this semester. The changes to the system will improve Webmail services and fix unexpected log-outs, inability to log in to accounts and slowness, according to Information Systems Services.

During winter break, ISS will lay the groundwork for the entire upgrade, which will occur throughout the spring semester.

“We expect it to solve some of the problems caused by looping messages, broken addresses, etc. that confuse the current software, in addition to it being a more robust system in the way it stores and manages the messages,” said Ronald Bonig, executive director of ISS Technology Operations. “It is also designed to work more seamlessly with the anti-virus software packages.”

The current Webmail system, which uses a program called Sun Internet Mail Server, will be replaced with new, upgraded software called Sun ONE Messaging.

“By the end of the next semester, we intend for all parts of the e-mail system to be new and more robust,” Bonig said.

Early next semester, ISS will begin switching all accounts to the new system, but students will not have to change any of their settings.

The current Webmail system will be upgraded for the first time since its introduction in August 2000. GW has been planning the upgrade for about a year, during which ISS officials decided how they would fix the current problems, conducted surveys and tested different potential servers.

Webmail slowness is attributed to an increase in e-mail use, with almost 6.5 million e-mails being processed each month, officials said.

The system is also slowed because the University scans each piece of mail to protect against viruses, Bonig said. About one in six e-mails contains a virus.

“The massive growth in sheer volumes of e-mail, plus the increasing percentage of e-mails carrying viruses, have strained the system,” Bonig said.

Most recently, students found Webmail’s L-Z server was “down” when they returned to campus after Thanksgiving.

“We made some changes to other systems in the data center over the Thanksgiving weekend and a power circuit was inadvertently disconnected to the computer handling the Webmail front end,” Bonig said.

Bonig said the new system will be more reliable and stable than the current one and the “new Webmail client system … has been chosen based on the surveys we circulated over the last several months and on the input we received from focus groups of students, faculty and staff.”

Besides the high volume of e-mails that pass through the system and virus protection, the number of alumni Webmail accounts also adds to the slowness.

Students currently keep their Webmail accounts after graduation. “So far, since August 2000 we haven’t purged even inactive (alumni accounts),” Bonig said, “but there will need to be some change in that.” Until the new system is in place, there are some provisions GW students can take to ease strain on Webmail.

Bonig stressed the importance of logging out after every e-mail session.
“Simply closing the Webmail window leaves your e-mail session live for a period of time, which takes out of circulation a session another student could be using,” he said.

Some students avoid certain Webmail problems by using programs such as Microsoft Outlook, which automatically log in users without actually going through the GW Web site. When the L-Z server was down, students using Outlook could still log in to their accounts via Outlook without worrying about the specific server.

Freshman Jason Vines said he switched to Outlook because he had trouble logging in to Webmail.

“(Problems don’t occur) so much with Outlook Express as with the portal,” Vines said.

Other students who don’t use Outlook said they are looking forward to the upgrade because they sometimes miss important e-mails when the server is down.

“Sometimes (Webmail) has a tendency to shut down more than it should,” freshman Dan Lebeaux said. “The cumulative time saved for everyone is worth the effort (required to upgrade).”

“Occasionally you’ll sign on and none of your e-mails are there … and it can stay like that for a whole day,” sophomore Graham Long said. “That’s annoying … I would use my AOL account because I could always sign on.”

Other students who use their Webmail less frequently said the upgrade will not impact them.

“Right now, Webmail is pretty adequate,” said junior Jonathan Gal, who also uses an America Online account. “I don’t know if it needs as much attention as some other things.”

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