Vassar Today

The Week without E-Mail and other New Age Growing Pains

By Jessica Winum

Too much of a good thing plagued the Vassar community last semester. General increased Internet use and the popularity of downloading large MP3 music files via combined to temporarily cripple the campus’s computer network. Additionally (and separately), memos, phone calls, and office visits made a comeback for a few days in November when the campus’s overburdened e-mail server, known as Vaxsar, became so clogged that it was unable to send out or receive mail. Alumnae/i who use Vassar’s e-mail forwarding service were also affected.

Problems with the Internet network began at the start of the fall semester with the return to campus of an increasingly online student and faculty population. With virtually everyone online, access slowed to a speed that not only created user frustration but the inability to conduct online research, visit course pages, or make required visits to a wide range of off-campus Websites.

The first step toward a solution was a request for voluntary restraint on the use of Napster, a popular music-swapping program. The Office of Computing and Information Services, headed by Vice President for CIS Diane Balestri, had determined that student use of Napster was consuming up to 60 percent of the college’s available access to the Internet.

When voluntary restraint did not significantly improve the situation, management policies to assure that those working in academic and administrative spaces were able to gain reasonable network access during business hours were implemented with the approval of a student/faculty computing advisory committee. “One of the policies included the severe curtailment (although not outright banishment),” of Napster, said Balestri. This decision improved matters for everyone except students working in their rooms, who experienced even more sluggish Internet response time.

The next step was to restrict Napster use outright. The student/faculty Committee on Computing and Information Technology, with input from the Vassar Student Association, decided to allot only one megabyte of bandwidth to Napster.

At the end of the semester the college increased its bandwidth from three to six megabytes per second, which is expected to dramatically improve access speed for the entire community. According to Balestri, this is the most the college can do until the local communications provider, Verizon, upgrades the area’s infrastructure.

Colleges and universities across the nation are similarly struggling with increased demand for Internet access as well as dealing with the more philosophical and legal questions surrounding access to Napster.

According to an article in the September 29 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, campus police officers at Oklahoma State University went so far as to seize a student’s computer after the Recording Industry Association of America accused him of downloading from Napster too frequently and “disseminating music illegally.” In its October 6 edition, the Chronicle reported that a number of universities—among them Stanford, Columbia, and Harvard—refused a request from the rock band Metallica and hip hop artist Dr. Dre to block Napster on their networks. These institutions endorse, as does Vassar, unfettered access to the Internet for students.

“We believe that the students are responsible for their actions,” said Balestri, “and we’re not making any institutional judgment about the uses to which the students [put] the materials [they get off the Internet], since we can imagine legal uses.” But academic and administrative concerns come before philosophical ones. The college simply cannot accomplish its mission if access to Napster is not restricted, said Balestri.

Student reactions to the problems have been mixed, ranging from freshman Justin Schraeger’s conviction that the college “shouldn’t be able to limit anything on the Internet,” to junior Kathleen Roark’s sentiment that “it would be nice if students could be a little more considerate. Is there really a need to download files from Napster?”

Meanwhile, as traffic slowed on Vassar’s network, complete gridlock struck its e-mail service. Said Balestri: The “sheer amount of mail contributed to the Vaxsar crash.”

Email is used for “everything from ‘Hi, Mom’ to major financial administrative negotiations” and all-campus e-mails —a popular way to advertise campus events. The system’s clogging was gradual, and CIS had hoped to nurse the machine through to winter break, when a disruption in service to replace the mail server would have been less detrimental to the community. But crisis came in midsemester, and the upgrade was forced then. The entire email system was down for six days.

According to Balestri the new mail server has many features to prevent similar crashes. “But the lessons certainly learned have included the need for vigilant monitoring of all our computer systems as patterns of usage continue to change, and for a commitment by the college to make sure that its infrastructure is always sufficiently robust and ‘ahead of the curve.’ ”