Structural changes ease stress of record email volume

September was a busy month for the administrators who oversee UC Davis' email system.

The team had worked hard to accommodate the demand anticipated as the campus enrolled its largest incoming freshman class ever. And, as expected, the email load became extremely heavy beginning the week before classes started.

The team monitored the system. The load continued to be heavy in the following weeks, leading to record volume. (Spam, to no one's surprise, was a big culprit.) To address the problem the team met with campus leadership, including the Academic Senate, to discuss implementing previously developed spam-blocking measures.

Although the system saw temporary slowdowns in late September, the email load stabilized after the early spike, as it often does after the start of a quarter. The team continued pursuing the email enhancements already slated for the 2006-07 academic year, which, in addition to spam-blocking measures, include a new proxy service, finding a replacement for Geckomail, replacing Listproc, testing a new "back end system," and many other improvements.

Nearly 50,000 campus email accounts

IET's Data Center and Client Services department manages close to 50,000 email accounts, which receive an average of 2 million to 3 million emails per day. Of these, more than 800,000 were routinely identified as "most likely spam" by the campus spam assessment software. The high percentage led the campus to implement new spam measures.

Meanwhile, to keep up with the needs of campus email users, Data Center and Client Services has had to continuously improve the system and anticipate the next critical hardware and software updates. Despite careful planning, the system can often take unexpected turns. The current email load, for example, was not expected for at least another year.

For 2006-07, the emphasis is on making impro vements behind the scenes and replacing some of the aging software systems.

Proxy service allows load balancing

One major improvement to the email system during the fall quarter was the addition of a proxy service to the email system.

Before the service was introduced, email accounts were essentially fixed in place among a collection of individual servers named after colors--blue, azure, tan, etc. If the load on one server became high, there was little administrators could do to spread the load unless they wanted the account holders to change their settings and move to a less busy server. That change, though, would delay access to the email account, and old messages might get lost in the transfer.

The proxy service lets administrators balance loads without users having to change any settings. Technical staff no longer has to indicate a specific "color" server when configuring a user's email account--they can now simply use the setting "mail.ucdavis.edu" for all incoming POP/IMAP mail server settings. (Existing email settings that point to a specific color server will continue to work, however.)

Although moving the servers to the proxy service was invisible for most email users, a glitch developed among faculty and staff using older versions of Eudora. The older software did not recognize the proxy's security certificate, and wouldn't allow email to be sent or received. These older versions of software also didn't satisfy UC Davis' cyber-safety standards, so campus technical staff worked quickly to update their users' email software to newer, supported versions. (For a list of email software supported by IT Express that meets the cyber-safety standards, go to itexpress.ucdavis.edu/support.)

Geckomail to be replaced in 2007

Campus email users can look forward to more improvements this year. A plan is under way to improve email storage, so that messages will be received even fa ster than they are now. The venerable Web-based email system--Geckomail--is due to be replaced with a faster and more flexible program. And the electronic mailing list software--Listproc--will be replaced with the more up-to-date open-source software, Mailman.

Testing is also under way to see if the campus should move to using Cyrus, an open-source product developed by Carnegie Mellon University, to help with the email back end.

To learn more about the campus email system, visit email.ucdavis.edu. For other questions about email, contact your department's technology support coordinator, or contact the IT Express Computing Help Desk at ithelp@ucdavis.edu or (530) 754-4357.