The University Record, September 17, 1997

Multiple problems contribute to slow e-mail

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Rain, snow, sleet and hail might not keep United States Postal Service carriers from delivering the mail, but they can certainly slow it down. Referred to as "snail mail" by a population that has become used to zapping through cyberspace at the speed of light, paper mail has been increasingly replaced by its electronic sister, e-mail.

But e-mail has its own set of problems, some of which have surfaced in the past few weeks at the University. To the dismay of computer users who have come to rely on nearly instantaneous delivery of e-mail messages, some e-mail in the past weeks has bee n held up for hours, even for several days.

Although there is no single breakdown in the mail system--and therefore no easy replacement part to plug in--there have been overloads on several of the dedicated servers that funnel e-mail through the University system, assumed to be a result of returning faculty, staff and students booting up and beaming out.

"The problems people are experiencing are of great concern to us in ITD," says Cheryl Munn-Fremon, acting director of operations and director of customer relations and support for the Information Technology Division (ITD). "The issues are extremely comp lex. PINE e-mail, for example, relies on the ITD Login Service and on IFS to operate. E-mail delivery requires the use of the X.500 Online Campus Directory. We have experienced several different problems, all of which can ultimately affect e-mail."

Contributing to the increased demand for communication are several smaller problems caused by senders who have inadvertently looped mail responses (caused them to cycle and recycle through their own mail systems) and something nebulously referred to as S PAM mail, where a non-University computer user requests that the University's servers funnel mail to a large number of addresses that may or may not be within the University.

"Any machine on the Internet will accept these messages and try to pass them on," says Kari Gluski, ITD product manager. "Our machines are very well-known. We are thinking about what we can do to stop that without making things more difficult for our r egular users by adding authentication barriers."

Joe Gelinas, ITD computer consultant, notes that many users at the University are so accustomed to having mail delivered quickly that they have come to expect it always will be.

"E-mail may seem instantaneous, but it isn't always," Gelinas says. "Mail gets passed through a lot of different machines, all of which can have a different problem at any given time."

Coupled with the return of students, faculty and staff to the University community, Gelinas attributes some of the system slowdown to Kerberos authentication requests backing up in the machines dedicated to that task, mail delivery queues lengthening whi le waiting for delivery, the aforementioned looping messages and unsolicited outside mail.

Gelinas says that while there is no one problem that needs to be fixed, ITD is working on correcting as quickly as possible the smaller bottlenecks that have led to slow delivery of e-mail. In the meantime, he suggests that e-mail users steer clear of t he afternoon peak time of 1 p.m.-5 p.m. and rely less on immediate delivery of messages.

Gluski says that for the most part, delivery of e-mail is very fast. When e-mail is delivered less quickly, users see it as a big problem because they have become so accustomed to speedy delivery.

"When you pick up a telephone, you expect to have a dial tone," Gluski says. "If you happen to pick it up one time and that tone is not there, you see it as a real problem. Telephone communication is designed that way.

"E-mail is not designed in that specific way. In practice, most of the time it happens, so people have come to expect that. And usually we can provide that. But when instant delivery doesn't happen, it is not always because something in the system is broken."