ITS to update Yale Webmail system

Some obsessive e-mail checkers might cringe at memories of stalled connections from overloaded servers, but new software and hardware upgrades may soon delete worries about system performance.

After several months of preliminary beta testing, Yale Information and Technology Services plans to convert from the current iteration of Webmail to a new, more stable version during the week of Sept. 26, Chief Information Officer Philip Long said. The new program features support for computers using non-Roman characters and a message warning users who are typing long e-mails when they have been logged out of the system, in order to prevent the e-mail content being lost instead of sent.

E-mails sent by any of the approximately 16,000 students, faculty or staff using the central campus system will now be directed through one of six computers internally managed by what ITS sources called a “load balancer.” An oversight device, the balancer shifts processing power to high-use sectors when necessary to prevent overload.

“It’s been a couple years since we’ve had an upgrade, and it really needed one to keep up,” said Lynna Jackson, the manager of e-mail and calendaring services. “The current version is running on a single massive computer, and that’s wonderful, except when power fails in that machine room. We needed to position the system to be able to meet increased demand.”

In addition to the system warnings and expanded character libraries, the new e-mail system enables users to personalize their e-mail window with weather and news services, route other e-mail accounts through the window and compose messages in HTML.

The new software is rooted in Horde, an open source program developed freely for institutional use. Though the latest version of Horde has been available for more than a year, Yale ITS officials spent that time tweaking the base system to address specific University needs. Members of the core Horde development team said it is not unusual for an institution using the software to alter its functionality, since the software was essentially developed based on the needs of individual team members.

“There doesn’t tend to be a centralized plan,” said Brent Nordquist, one of the core Horde developers. “If you want it, you do it.”

While University e-mail managers focused primarily on combating spam for much of last year, Jackson said attachment failure and other problems with the new Horde software also delayed the project, which had been slated for completion last month.

Tests of the system under “simulated load conditions” have led ITS officials to believe that the servers can handle central campus e-mail traffic, but Jackson said she will remain cautious until the project has been safely running for more than a month, and she said more upgrades are in the works.

“Sometimes all the testing in the world doesn’t predict what’s going to happen under real load,” Jackson said. “It’s not the last e-mail software you’ll ever use. I hope that in two years we’ll be able to announce another upgrade that’ll make it even better.”

The integration of all Yale e-mail systems remains the ultimate aim of the Webmail reforms, Long said, adding that he will focus on plans for integration of the approximately 6,000 students, faculty and staff at the schools of Medicine and Nursing later this year.

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