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Feb. 2, 2015

Campus-wide computer crisis plagues week one

By Abbey White

computers Many students faced their own version of blue-screen terror last week after technology labs across the campus experienced network outages.

The system issues left users without computer access during the start of the spring term.

Students in the Main Classroom, Student Center and Urban building labs experienced the most extended operational delays as computers were down for nearly a week.

Issues began the morning of Monday, Jan. 18, when students at various computer labs were suddenly unable to log in and connect to the Internet. Other users reported slow processing times.

Lab monitors, such as those in the Student Center, moved to assisting students with the use of laptops, which seemed to be unaffected by the network issue.

Not every computer in the labs experienced problems, however, leaving many unsure as to the cause. According to William Shepard, director of Operations and Technical Support for the Information Services and Technology (IS&T) at Cleveland State University, computers experiencing net-work and server error issues were using what is known as thin-client technology.

“A thin client is not like a regular PC,” Shepard said. “There’s nothing on it. When you log in, we send an image down from the server and you think you’re on a regular computer, but there’s really nothing on that computer. It’s all on the server.”

Thin-client software is implemented by many com-panies, most often in office settings where thousands of machines are necessary. The technology is desirable for its ease of use and upkeep.

Shepard explained that unlike a regular desktop computer with its own processor or “tower,” if a thin-client system picks up a virus, the infected “image” is simply recycled after log off. When a new user logs on, a new image is sent and the virus is gone. He notes there is a downside to the one-for-all approach.

“If we have to do an update, we get one image, push it out, and everyone’s updated,” Shepard said. “But when that server goes down, everybody goes down.”

This was the main reason for the lab disturbance on Monday, but the extension of non-operational computers throughout the week was a result of something IS&T has been working on since last year.

“Our computers run on a four-year replacement rotation,” Shepard said. “We are in the process of changing our PCs. In the fall, we replaced about 12 Macs and this spring we are replacing the remaining – around 14.”

In addition to having nearly all brand new computers available in the labs, IS&T was in the midst of a thin-client removal process – a result of a recent IS&T survey that garnered around 1,000 responses from the campus community.

Students and faculty indicated that they had experienced many of the same issues users faced during last week’s outage. The problem led the department to remove all of the thin-client software from the labs and replace them with stand-alone computers.

“There were about 140 computers using this technology in various computer labs around campus,” Shepard said. “During last term, the department replaced around 80 of those. That was what we had in the budget to fix at that point.”

IS&T had planned on replacing the remaining machine this spring. When the server crashed, it offered the department an opportunity to address both issues and avoid more lab disruption and downtime.

“During the first week of school we pulled out the remaining 55 computers and have since been replacing them with new ones,” Shepard said.

While it can’t control every server crash that happens, IS&T is both actively and proactively working to address issues that arise.

A ticketing system where students can notify the department over the phone, through a lab monitor and online by filling out an EASY report form has been implemented.

On a daily basis, IS&T uses its lab monitors and super monitors to observe the health of its respective labs. The department also deploys a form of secret shoppers to report on the experience of using each technology lab.

“We have the secret shoppers that the lab monitors don’t even know are there,” said Daniel Mortimer, manager of Help Desk and Student Computing Services. “They come over to the computers and sit down to use a PC for a while, then go over to a monitor to ask a question to see how responsive they are. I’ve got a whole bunch of reports just from secret shoppers saying [they were] in this lab at this time, the lab monitor was doing this, it was clean, it wasn’t clean.”

This comprehensive reporting system is what IS&T depends on to provide a positive experience for lab users and maintain the health of its computers.

As one of the department members was near a thin-client computer during last Monday’s server crash, IS&T knew as soon as it happened. As a result, it was able to begin addressing the issue immediately instead of relying on student and user reporting.

“After we fixed the issue, the server was back up and running in about an hour,” Shepard said.