Review of email problems produces report, suggests changes

The independent committee created to review last September's campus email outage has released its report. IET has already begun making changes.

Vice Provost for Information and Educational Technology Pete Siegel, who asked for the review, praised the committee's work, and complimented IET staffers for working so well with the committee. He also fully endorsed the report's recommendations. The report "represents both a critical guidepost for improving IET services," he said in a memo, "and a best practice for transparent reviews of complex issues" that other campus groups might find useful.

Even people who aren't interested in the report's specific findings, Siegel added, might appreciate the process.

Starting on Monday, Sept. 10, during the final week of Summer Session II, about half of the campus's 52,000 email accounts became sporadically unavailable for part of four weekdays. Email system administrators relieved the problem by moving thousands of campus email accounts to additional servers, but finding the root cause proved difficult. (The culprit turned out to be a bug in commercial operating system software.)

The Email Review Committee, led by College of Engineering Dean Enrique Lavernia, was formed in late September. Siegel asked the committee to "openly and transparently" assess what happened, and the group started meeting in October.

Its 186-page report recommends improvements in various areas. The preliminary response from IET management describes several ways that IET has already begun to address those ideas, including steps to strengthen the existing quality assurance and quality control process--using, among other things, a software tool IET had already purchased.

The report also asks IET to review the staffing and organization of the Data Center, and to ensure that it has enough resources. IET has begun that review, and "very much appreciates the support for ensuring that adequate staff resources are available and properly organized to meet campus needs," the preliminary response says. The Data Center hosts more than 70 services representing about 800 systems.

IET's response also "recognizes the need for additional project management resources to better manage the implementation of new services and changes to current services."

The value of the review extends beyond the specific email failure in at least two important ways, Siegel added in his memo:

--It suggests that serious effort is needed from vendors and customers to ensure responsive and timely support for systems--specifically in regards to "community source" software, an increasingly common type of non-commercial software.

--And the review shows that collaborations between administrative units and faculty experts can produce significant benefits. The advantages come after the fact this time, Siegel wrote, but heeding the report's ideas when a project is being planned or set up should produce even greater benefits.

"The review was extremely beneficial," said Morna Mellor, director of the Data Center and Client Services for IET. "The engagement was positive, gave us tremendous feedback, and also reinforced that we had done a lot of things right."

"We very much appreciated the process," she said. "We would like to use it again, and encourage others on campus to consider it as well."

Siegel said he and IET "look forward to w orking closely with our campus colleagues as we implement the action steps outlined as a result of this review." Look for updates here.