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Webmail evades widespread virus

Scott Brodfuehrer | Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Six months ago, the Office of Information Technologies completed a major overhaul of the University’s e-mail system, installing four new e-mail servers. Since that time, the e-mail system survived a major virus attack that affected computers worldwide and likely would have completely crippled the previous e-mail system.

Paul Russell, senior systems administrator at OIT, said that the virus outbreak makes it difficult to directly compare the performance of the new system to the old one.

On Aug. 19 at 7 a.m., the Sobig virus began to hit the e-mail servers and they received approximately 5,000 infected messages in the next three hours. Between then and Sept. 10, the date on which the virus attack subsided, the University’s mail servers disinfected over 1 million e-mails that had the virus attached.

On one day during the attack, the e-mail servers disinfected more than twice as many e-mails as they did during the entire month of June, which had previously been the month with the largest number of detected viruses.

With the large amount of virus-laden e-mail, the e-mail servers’ performance decreased last month as they scanned a large number of attachments and dealt with a much higher than normal amount of incoming e-mail.

“It took a noticeable performance hit, but [the performance] was never as bad as it was last year [under the old system] … it was a testament to our servers; a number of colleges and commercial sites just shut down e-mail because they could not handle the deluge,” Russell said.

Webmail, a Web-based method of checking e-mail widely used by students, was also replaced last spring. Unlike the old system, under which Webmail was run on a Pentium computer not running any other mail applications, Webmail is now run on the same servers that handle all incoming e-mail at Notre Dame. This configuration offers the day-to-day benefit of better performance, but when the incoming mail servers are overloaded – such as during a virus attack – the performance of the Webmail application suffers along with other e-mail functions.

However, on a day-to-day basis, Russell said that Webmail is running much better than the previous version.

“The Help Desk is not getting the volume of calls about Webmail that they were getting at this time last year. We were using the old Webmail for three years, and we were getting barraged daily with [problem] messages and had to restart the old Webmail on a daily basis,” Russell said.

Senior systems administrator John Buysse said that Webmail has been upgraded several times since it was installed in March, but that most of the updates were security patches that were transparent to end-users. One added functionality implemented over the summer was the ability to have distribution lists in a user’s address book, which was not available last spring.