Students express concern over CardMail performance
Questions about service outages, limitations receive discussion at Technology Open Forum
April 17, 2006 —
Director Ken Schindler and the rest of the Information Technology Services staff faced a battery of pointed questions from students on Thursday at a well-attended Technology Open Forum.
In addition to Schindler, Lab Coordinator Hank Pletscher and Instructional Technology Manager Brian Mudd fielded inquiries.
Among the numerous concerns raised by students were the recent problems with CardMail; wireless access for mobile devices; USB/flash drive compatibility issues; programming software for the Open Labs; ResNet outages; speed/bandwidth limitations; BlackBoard; wireless access to printers; the MySVSU portal and the new design of SVSU's Web site, which has become a rather polarizing issue since it was unveiled a few weeks ago.
Before the forum, Schindler commented briefly on a few topics of interest, but for the most part lamented the troubles ITS was having simply keeping CardMail alive.
"We've been fighting some technical problems for the last couple of months," he said.
Schindler noted that, for what appears to be an inexplicable reason, CardMail has seen double the usage this academic year than it did last year, even though the student population has not seen a significant increase. The strain on CardMail's server is therefore rather unprecedented and accordingly quite difficult to deal with.
He added that ITS is looking to upgrade current server equipment and possibly restructure the entire system on which CardMail operates, hinting that a replacement for the troublesome e-mail client is a possibility.
From the outset, Schindler and other ITS staff were inundated with a barrage of questions, comments, and complaints. Andy Suszek, Student Association speaker of the house, served as moderator and opened the floor for questions.
Student Ed Quicksall was the first student to answer the call, immediately inquiring as to what was wrong with CardMail. Schindler reiterated what he had said earlier, citing server load problems and poor database structure. The director said that ITS could best assess whether the current repairs to the client (additional memory, various "tweaks") were sufficient on Monday morning, when server loads normally reach peak usage.
After the discussion of CardMail, several students questioned the ITS staff on the University's wireless Internet access, citing the inability to connect to the network on handheld device (such as a PDA) and the inability to send print jobs to University printers wirelessly. Schindler responded by noting the apparent lack of interest in the University's wireless "hotspots;" the director cited a figure of merely 104 unique users accessing the available bandwidth (the majority of which did so in Zahnow Library).
Given that statistic, Schindler argued that ITS sees little incentive to dedicate time and money to devise methods for handheld device access to the wireless network. He stated that wireless access was not a "critical" issue and ruled out creating a campus-wide wireless network, arguing that it was "unnecessary."
Randy Walker was another student to raise some questions, asking ITS and Pletscher in particular why the computer labs (Brown 203, in particular) inconsistently recognized USB drives and/or flash memory sticks. Pletscher and Schindler responded jointly (with input from Quicksall), saying that for more consistent results, it is best to always plug USB drives into the rear USB ports. For whatever reason, the ports on the back of the computer will recognize portable drives more often.
It was after his response that Pletscher said that the microcomputer labs would be upgraded with new computers for the fall semester. He did not, however, mention exactly which labs would be receiving upgraded machines. It comes as somewhat of a surprise that such an announcement was made virtually off-the-cuff.
Shortly after, Quicksall brought up another concern, saying, "I can't surf more than two pages without being disconnected."
Schindler reacted with some surprise, saying that he had not heard from anyone on any severe problems concerning ResNet, informing Quicksall that "the problem you're describing is not something we're doing intentionally." Quicksall responded by saying that several people have told him that ResNet was performing poorly for them as well. One student who was present at the forum cited connection problems with instant messaging programs, to which Schindler addressed specifically, stating that when bandwidth becomes scarce, IM programs are the first to be sacrificed.
He went on to say that "packet-managing" programs were in place to "throttle" large downloads, so that one person cannot bring the entire network to a standstill. He recalled an instance wherein one student started to download a video of a concert, which severely crippled the University's bandwidth servers.
Efforts are being made, however, to discern between "essential" or educational downloads and non-essential ones in order to better legitimize the University's policy of limiting bandwidth. Finally, Schindler encouraged Quicksall to provide him with specific instances of ResNet outages in order to better assess the situation.
After the lengthy dialogue on ResNet, the forum shifted to discussion of SVSU's Web services. Walker was again among the first to pose a question, asking the ITS staff why the MySVSU portal was developed in the first place, given that BlackBoard possesses a similar capability.
Schindler answered, stating that upgrading BlackBoard to assume all the functions of MySVSU would cost "an arm and a leg." Apparently, writing the MySVSU portal was significantly cheaper. The portal sees little use, according to Schindler, but the users who do utilize it "use it a lot."
The conversation then shifted to SVSU's new front page, which some students at the forum decried. Schindler argued that the change was intended to reflect a new design philosophy emphasizing marketing and recruitment.
This may explain the appearance of the University's new slogan in the bottom left corner of the homepage, "Something New. Something Better."