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ISSUE 117 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/14/2003

Solutions to server woes offered by support staff

By Katie Marshall
Contributing Writer


Friday, November 14, 2003

It is late on Saturday night, and you have just finished your 15-page paper. You cannot remember the last time you saved, so you attempt to save it now, only to find that the server has completely crashed. You might curse the server and computers everywhere, but you remain helpless when it comes to bringing Sven back to life.

Sven, the shared server of the St. Olaf network onto which students are able to save their personal work, has experienced a plethora of difficulties. In fact, it has crashed approximately a dozen times, which averages out to a crash every five days. For most students, this means frozen computers, lost work and lost time.

Tony Skalaski, systems administrator, has some insight into the problem for students. He said that the potential causes of server crashes can be narrowed down to three general categories: "the software is functioning improperly, the hardware is corrupt, or the buffers that allocate traffic are overloaded."

He observed that the server appears to crash more frequently at night, when more students are working on the server, but so far this has failed to point to any specific problems.

Once down, the server remains inoperable anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that Sven needs to be down for an extended period of time in order for the system administrators to investigate the failure and apply a remedy. Even four days later, if it crashes again, this process must be repeated.

Sometimes, Sven remains down for a longer period of time. According to helpdesk workers, supervisors and system administrators, the best thing to do is "call the helpdesk." Sometimes the network crash affects only a small segment of campus, and Informational and Instructional Technologies (IIT) is unaware of the problem.

Usually, someone calls during the day when the helpdesk is operating. Students and supervisors then relay the problem to a server administrator.

According to helpdesk student worker David Middlecamp '05, "The students on campus are usually pretty vigilant when it comes to alerting us to potential problems. It sure seems like the helpdesk has a few ‘early responders,’ which is a big help for us."

During evening helpdesk hours, student workers have less control over server restarts. Helpdesk worker Megan Crary '05 said, "We do not have the authority or the access to restart Sven at these time, and the only thing we can do is call one of our supervisors at home to have him investigate the problem."

In the last month, IIT has obtained pagers for on-call staff members for rapid notification.

On weekends, however, even this method fails to be effective. Recently, an e-mail alias (serverproblems@stolaf.edu) has been created, which students may use to inform an administrator that the server is down; this can be applied to Sven or Brit. After the administrator receives an e-mail, he will drive to campus and reboot the server.

In the meantime, several options exist to avoid losing computer work. If students are using their own computer, they should save to the desktop or My Documents folder. On a public computer, students face the challenge of finding a place to save that will not be erased when the computer is rebooted. Skalaski recommends saving to the C drive by creating a "nondescript folder"—one whose name the student alone will recognize. Once the server has been rebooted, students can return to re-save their work onto the Sven drive and erase the folder.

Ultimately, IIT helpdesk workers say that patience is key. Helpdesk worker Megan Tegeder '06 said, "When Sven does crash, which is annoying for all of us, it's important just to be patient."

The administrators seek to balance time spent looking at the problem with quick restarts. Helpdesk workers and even their supervisors cannot control server crashes or when the server gets rebooted. In the meantime, new hardware and more software updates will be used to continue the search for a solution.





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