Studying, homework assignments, Skype conversations and online games were interrupted Tuesday night across the University of Massachusetts when a problem with a Domain Name System (DNS) server, supplied to the campus by a vender crashed, according to Andrew Vernon, assistant director of the Office of Information and Technology (OIT).
The DNS server – which connects a user to the website they want to access by locating the website’s IP address – was down from 11:45 p.m. until 3 a.m. when OIT was able to resolve the issue.
“We have several domain servers,” said Vernon. “One of them was unavailable because of a vendor-related bug error. So, the problem was actually not just at UMass Amherst, but with many Internet service providers.”
“OIT learned of it literally in real time,” added Vernon. “At midnight, I was up along with several other people in OIT, and the engineers from the campus network resolved it at about 3 in the morning.”
The Internet blackout was particularly inconvenient to many students on campus, who rely on the Internet for many reasons.
“I was trying to study for an exam and I couldn’t access the practice quiz or the quiz answers,” said junior kinesiology major Mary Chaput who lives in Orchard Hill. “So, at 1 a.m. I just gave up and went to sleep.”
While the problems on Tuesday night were an isolated incident, there have been problems with the campus’s wireless network throughout the school year. According to Vernon, the most frequent problems have been slow downloading – also known as a throughput – as well as speed and the Internet connection being dropped. These problems have been particularly prevalent in the Southwest Residential Area, Hamlin, Brown and North A-D.
“There are a lot of people working on that problem right now,” said Vernon. “Every day they’re focusing in on that very significantly. The problem was relatively significant to begin with and over the last few weeks they’ve brought it down. It’s not perfect, it’s not 100 percent yet and it’s better than it was.”
OIT considers a download speed of less than five megabytes per second to be a problem. According to Vernon, an acceptable range of speed is between 5 and 20 megabytes per second; however, wireless speeds can he higher.
While Vernon feels that substantial progress has been made since early October when the problem was identified, OIT is still unsure of the root cause.
“Several of the network engineers have been trying to determine the definitive cause of it,” said Vernon. “We believe that one significant change that’s going to take effect in the next few days hopefully address the issue.”
Despite the problems, Vernon assures that lack of bandwidth – the amount of Internet being sent to the dorm – is not the issue in Southwest, Hamlin, Brown and North A-D, as these buildings actually have a greater bandwidth than the other dormitories.
“In Southwest, the bandwidth to each building isn’t entirely being consumed, where there’s actually still room,” said Vernon, who explained that the problems of slow downloading and dropped connections are a separate issue.
“All of the devices in a Southwest building will never collectively consume the entire bandwidth, or they are not doing that now,” he said. Southwest has one gigabit of bandwidth.
However, in the other dormitories on campus, particularly Orchard Hill and Central, the bandwidth is the reason why students are experiencing slow connections.
“We have really bad Internet,” said Chaput. “It is very slow.”
In these building, there is a limited bandwidth and it possible for students to consume all of it.
“It happens during peak usage hours, generally between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” said Vernon. “That’s why in a place like Orchard Hill it is essential to use the bandwidth more productively.”
Using bandwidth more productively means turning off wireless printers, video game consoles, time capsules and other devices that use bandwidth.
The complications with the Internet this year have caused some students, such as freshman computer science major Michael Loscocco, to wonder if it was even worth switching to a wireless network.
“Personally, I find it a bit frustrating,” he said. “Most classes at college are wireless Internet-based, especially for me since I’m in computer science.”
Loscocco thinks that UMass should have continued to use Ethernet cables; a system he feels is more reliable.
“Wireless networking causes a huge problem. On a basic knowledge of networking, I’m pretty sure Ethernet is always the way to go,” Loscocco said.
However, as of last year, students did not feel that way and there was a push from the student population to make the entire campus wireless, since wireless allows for greater mobility.
“When we spoke to student affairs and the Chancellor’s office, the consensus from students was that they wanted wireless,” said Vernon. “It’s not easy for OIT to run both a wired and a wireless network simultaneously.”
According to Vernon, running both networks would cause them to interfere with each other and cause a lot of traffic.
Vernon encourages students with problems to contact or visit OIT, as it is the only way for OIT to stay informed about the problems and to fix them.
Steve Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Katie Landeck can be reached at email@example.com.