Webmail changes get mixed reviews

When Yalies woke up Saturday, they encountered at least one significant change to their morning routines — a revamped Webmail system.

Yale Information and Technology Services upgraded Webmail this weekend after more than a year of planning and development. While the upgrade added some new features for users, the main motivation for the change was to bring the software to a more stable, secure and supportable version, Chief Information Officer Philip Long said.

Hardware upgrades mayl also help ensure greater reliability for the Webmail system, Long said. But the new interface was met with mixed reviews by students, some of whom said they found the new program cumbersom and difficult to use.

The changes include new support for non-Western character sets and the addition of a message warning users that they were logged out of the program, in an attempt to prevent e-mails from being lost when users thought they would be sent. Despite a relatively problem-free beginning for ITS, some students said they were not pleased with the new interface, while others said they would learn to adapt.

Emily Bernier ’09 said she found it difficult to open pictures and documents attached in the new system and did not like how the new search function requires refreshing the page to select search options.

“The attachments are annoying to open,” Bernier said. “You can’t just click on the file.”

Behind the scenes, the changes are designed to ensure the network’s stability across the University. The older version of Webmail in use until Saturday was no longer supported by the team that developed it, Long said. The newer version became available from Horde, a consortium that develops open source programs, more than a year ago. ITS spent much of that time adjusting the Horde system to meet Yale’s needs and develop spam removal techniques.

Long said ITS officials had expected the program’s interface to change.

“That’s sort of an inevitable consequence of an upgrade when you’re purchasing a product through a vendor,” Long said.

The need for greater security also contributed to the upgrade decision. Long said that while ITS was unaware of any successful attacks on their old system, the new program’s code adds another layer of protection.

Computer science professor Paul Hudak said the web-based system is more vulnerable than other types of e-mail interface, such as client-based programs Eudora or Thunderbird, due to the type of internet protocols used. But even though Webmail remains a web-based client, Hudak said he thinks the upgrade was a positive step because it makes access safer from any computer.

“This program is state of the art when using a web-based interface,” he said.

The hardware upgrades involved switching from one main computer handling all the e-mail sent and received on central campus to six machines using a load balancer. A load balancer distributes processing power as the different computers need it, preventing overload and increasing overall system efficiency.

In addition to functional changes, the new system also included visual modifications, the source of most student complaints. Simone Berkower ’09 said he was annoyed that the Web page would often change every time he refreshed it.

Some students said they were unaffected by the change since they do not use Webmail or only use it with other e-mail programs.

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