ITS looks to tweak Webmail

When Josh Garcia ’09 downloaded Eudora Thunderbird last spring to use in place of Yale’s Webmail site, he said the change ended months of frustration with the slow speed, cumbersome layout and confusing organization of the University’s interface.

“Webmail is really tedious,” he said. “I just find I waste so much time waiting for the pages to load, and finding old e-mails is really hard. It’s really hard to search for old messages or who sent something to you. It’s really hard to do anything.”

In response to a growing chorus of voices like Garcia’s — and after the launch of Yale’s new front door Web site last month — officials in Information Technology Services are evaluating the University’s Webmail system in the hopes of upgrading to a faster server software in January, Director of ITS and Chief Information Officer Philip Long said.

Long said ITS is looking to change to new software that will make loading e-mails more efficient, regardless of the number of messages in an inbox. Currently, inboxes with large quantities of e-mail load slowly because the server has to load the entire inbox before it can display the first page, he said.

“We’re going to change the way the server runs in the background — in a way that won’t be visible to you all, to me as a client or to you as a client,” Long said. “It will provide the same service and will look the same, but it will run faster and more predictably.”

Susan Kelley, the director of production services for ITS, said last September’s upgrade to a new version of the open-source Webmail software that Yale uses — called the Internet Messaging Program — made Webmail more effective by distributing the activity of more than 30,000 users with Yale e-mail addresses over Yale’s six “front-end” Web servers.

But improvements to the system’s mail store — eight machines supported by high-end fiber channel discs on which e-mail messages are actually kept — could make Webmail easier to use and help relieve backups and delays, Kelley said.

“The bottleneck could be anywhere along the way: from the browser you’re using, across the network, to the front-end Webmail, to the back-end e-mail store,” she said. “We are in the middle of doing the analysis so that we can propose a back-end e-mail upgrade next semester, where we’ll be improving the technology that is used to actually store the mail messages.”

Kelley said the IMP software is used to support e-mail systems at most colleges and universities.

Simone Berkower ’09, a computing assistant in Jonathan Edwards College, said she often hears complaints from students who become frustrated with the slow loading speed of Webmail and the hassle of having to log in and out of Yale’s Central Authentication Service. Berkower said she personally uses Eudora software because it does not require her to log in every time she wants to check her e-mail.

“A lot of people comment to me in passing about how it’s really annoying how you have to log into CAS every time and you have to log out,” she said. “I would recommend getting an e-mail client, like Eudora or Outlook, because it takes care of it all for you.”

Long said he agrees that other e-mail clients, some of which use their own proprietary software instead of open-source software, offer better options than Yale’s Webmail. But he said ITS does not know of any better Webmail software to which it could switch at this time.

“Every year we look around and examine the pros and cons of various clients,” he said. “This is a system that was designed several years ago, and it is not up to current design standards. It’s not as nice as the current mail from Google or Yahoo, no doubt about it. … It is its own application which we’ve adapted for use at Yale, so we don’t have control over every aspect.”

Long said he understands the inconvenience of having to log into CAS, but the University decided that such measures were important in protecting users’ electronic information.

“We did take the trouble to introduce CAS into Webmail,” he said. “But we didn’t give the option of allowing transparent login from Webmail because we were concerned that it is so often used in a kiosk setting that it might accidentally leave someone’s mail open. So we chose the more conservative option.”

ITS’s eventual goal is to better incorporate Yale’s Webmail into the University’s online information portal and allow for improved integration of all of Yale’s online resources, although such a move is still several years away, Long said.

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