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Problems plague Webmail

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, April 28, 2006

In this age of high-speed communication, people can spread news of an event to all corners of the world just minutes after it happens. But for Notre Dame students, opening up Webmail often recalls the days of the Pony Express.

While the problem has been steadily building, during this spring semester in particular e-mail users have begun to notice longer delays in logging onto the e-mail program to read messages. And though officials hope to alleviate the problem before the semester ends, a long-term fix may be more of a wait.

“It goes slow a lot and sometimes it goes so slow you can’t really log in,” freshman Kyle Peters said. “It usually just takes a couple of seconds, but when it’s bad it takes a couple minutes. Usually if it’s taking a couple minutes, I just ‘X’ out and don’t even try.”

The Office of Information Technologies (OIT) is aware of the troubles users have had in accessing e-mail through e-mail clients Webmail, Outlook, Eudora and Thunderbird this semester. Denise Moser, consolidated operations manager for OIT, said her office frequently receives calls from students and faculty experiencing problems opening their e-mail quickly.

Students tend to use Webmail, and faculty and staff use the other e-mail programs more frequently, but all are experiencing the same problems right now because they use the same server, she said.

OIT organizational communications analyst James Cope said the reason for the slowness of e-mail clients like Webmail is not an increase in e-mails sent and received but rather an increase in concurrent users – more people are logging on at the same time.

“What has increased significantly is … the number of connections to e-mail, so that the number of concurrent connections – different people connecting at the same time to email servers – has gone up 25 percent over the past year,” Cope said. “It is a behavioral thing. People simply seem to be checking their email more frequently.”

Sophomore Dee Gulis said she checks her e-mail approximately 20 times a day, and sometimes it takes a few minutes to open.

“Especially lately it’s been really slow logging in and loading up messages,” Gulis said.

Webmail is the preferred e-mail client for students because it can be accessed at any computer connected to the Internet since it is a Web-based service. The Webmail system students use today is about three years old.

Moser said other factors have contributed to the slowing down of the e-mail clients this semester. More people have wireless capabilities on laptops or Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), so they can log onto their e-mail at any time, she said.

Users also slow down the system by enabling an IMAP protocol to store mail on the server so they can access it from any location at anytime. The system can become overwhelmed if users change the preferences on their e-mail client to check for new messages less than every 10 minutes.

Moser attributes the increase in daily usage to “the growing popularity of e-mail and wanting it instantaneously, like Instant Messenger.”

OIT does have plans for improving e-mail service, Moser said. She hopes by next week they will begin to move the mail store to faster drives, a process that could take up to a week and a half. Moser said e-mail users should start to receive faster service in the middle of finals week.

Over the summer, OIT administrators will work on long-term changes and improvements to the system to keep up with the increasing demand, Moser said.

English professor Dr. Noreen Deane-Moran uses Eudora to access her e-mail. This semester, she sometimes has waited up to 15 minutes before she can read a message. Deane-Moran mentioned the delay to an OIT employee in her building recently.

“I said, ‘You know I could read a novel in-between the time I click and when [the message] comes up,'” Deane-Moran said.

Deane-Moran typically keeps her Eudora account open on her computer all day and notices her new messages open slowest between noon and four and at some hours during the night – times when people are checking their e-mails in mass numbers.

OIT has prevented some usage problems this year by enabling a spam firewall to block junk mail from entering the inboxes of e-mail users.

“If we did not have the spam controls that we have in place, the system would be totally overwhelmed,” Cope said. “Fortunately we filter out a lot of the spam mail that comes through campus.”

Cope said though the e-mail clients must be improved to deal with the increasing usage of students and faculty, the system currently in place is still better at handling the communications needs of users than previous e-mail services.

“We’ve gone from e-mail systems that were routinely down to very highly reliable systems that from time to time may be a little bit sluggish because of the load, but are certainly for the most part available,” Cope said.