Jan. 9, 2003
Vol. 22 No. 7

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    CIO Jackson explains need for some e-mail standardization

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    On Monday, Dec. 2, the campus witnessed an unprecedented breakdown of the e-mail capabilities of the University’s Networking Services and Information Technologies Organization, which normally processes 500,000 e-mail messages daily. The direct causes were an unusual combination of hardware and software failures and overloads.

    According to Greg Jackson, Vice-President and Chief Information Officer at the University, a growing number of campus users also are sending more, larger and increasingly complicated messages. An added factor is the significant number of users who have not yet converted from the older, system-intensive POP e-mail protocol to the newer IMAP protocol recommended by NSIT.

    By Saturday, Dec. 7, round-the-clock efforts by the NSIT staff had solved the immediate problems and e-mail traffic was fully up and running again, while pop access returned a few days later.

    After “a week of extremely late nights and lots of pizza deliveries,” the crisis was over. Jackson offered perspective in layman’s language on the hardware, software and human operation that provides e-mail communications for nearly 12,000 active campus e-mail accounts, of which 3,000 are connected to the server at any given time.

    “The history of these technologies at the University is that they grow idiosyncratically,” Jackson said. “There are a pocket of people who do one thing; another pocket who do another; and then new things get added along the way. It’s always been difficult to tell people that they have to stop doing what works just fine for them because it doesn’t work fine for the University anymore.”

    Jackson said NSIT always tries to avoid individual disruptions as much as possible, but the result of all the accommodations is layers of added complications over time that “get to the point where the complications start boxing us in.” He pointed out that other organizations take a more Draconian approach to solving these problems by mandating an immediate and total conversion of all users from POP to IMAP, for example.

    Jackson said there is inherent tension between the need to adopt an entirely new and unified technology standard and the legitimate desire not to disturb the ingrained and disparate habits of individual e-mail users at an institution, where the rights of the individual are taken very seriously. “We’ve gotten to the point where we simply cannot afford to run so complex a mail system because everyone now uses e-mail as their fundamental method of communication in a way that could not have been fully foreseen even as recently as three or four years ago,” he said.

    Jackson compared current campus e-mail use to the University’s telephone system.“We now know that e-mail is essential, so we need to run it with the same kind of standardization and rigor with which we run the telephone system,” he said. “People pick up the telephone and can expect a dial tone within a fifth of a second, and if it’s longer that that, they say that something’s wrong. And we achieve that efficiency and reliability because we don’t let people tinker with their phones, choose what kind of protocol they want to use for signaling, or what format is going to be on the screen that shows the phone number.”

    Jackson pointed out that both the University’s telephone and e-mail systems are much less expensive than similar systems in the corporate world, though they are comparable in quality in most respects. He said the sacrifice that must be made for the lower budgets is the necessity to standardize more with “standards-based platforms,” such as consistent use of the IMAP protocol.

    “We are constantly trying to think about the service that we ideally want balanced against the level of service that we can afford, with a solution that’s as simple as possible and consistent with the multitude of activities at this university,” he concluded. And not surprisingly, he also strongly encourages the switch to IMAP to help avoid any repetition of that long week without e-mail.