Utah State University - computer failures, multiple system glitches

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Computer failures cause long lines, frustration for Utah State U. students

Updated 12:00 PM ET January 12, 2000

By Vicky Campbell, The Utah Statesman, Utah State U.

(U-WIRE) LOGAN, Utah -- The word of the first week of the semester for many Utah State University students has been: AAAAAAAARGH! With the USU computer system failing sporadically since Jan. 4, registration and cashier lines as well as computer labs have been full of antsy students wondering what is going on.

The answer? Nobody is quite certain, but Computer Services is working like mad to find out.

"The problem has been related to the student information system and the mainframe," registrar David Roos said. "We were not able to handle the load of students accessing the system and it crashed." The problem is software-related, according to Barbara White, dean and chief information officer for Information and Learning Resources and Kim Marshall, associate director of Computer Services.

The university purchased software, called CICS8, in October, Marshall said. Because it was purchased after the registration and tuition payment rush, it was never forced to handle a full load, he said. Thus, it was never fully tested. And, the real crunch comes during the last few days of fee payment, he said. Add to the scenario the fact that the holidays resulted in more students paying their tuition toward the end of the payment window, and there is a massive amount of information to process.

However, the problem doesn't exactly lie in the amount of information or the number of transactions, but somewhere in the type of transactions being processed.

The system is designed with a central processor called the transaction manager, which is responsible for accepting information from terminals at places such as the Registration Office and Cashier Office. It also accepts information from the QUAD program via phones and the Internet. So, when it goes down, everything goes down.

White and Marshall said the problems arise within this system when it receives a certain type of transaction. For example, Monday the system had problems when the registration office was attempting to update a more-than-3-year-old transcript, Marshall said.

When the system receives a transaction it doesn't like, it shuts down and has to be rebooted. This usually takes about 5 minutes, Marshall said. There is someone constantly watching for shutdowns to get the system up and running as soon as possible, Marshall said.

But, there are probably 100 different types of transactions and the only way to find out which is the problem is to sort through a "dump," or history of transactions, Marshall said.

Right now Computer Services is working with IBM and SCT, the software vendors, to do just that.

"We keep thinking we've found the problem and it doesn't fix anything," Marshall said.

White said she realizes frustration levels are extremely high, but with technology there isn't always an easy solution.

"We can't just go in and always just switch a button to fix it," she said. "It takes a whole lot of deduction."

And, with anywhere from 10,000 to 14,000 transactions an hour (about 167 to 233 per second) going through the system during peak times, there are huge pileups when things go wrong, Marshall said.

However, because the system is failing so much, students' courses were not dropped last night as they usually are if fees haven't been paid. So, classes that were full Tuesday are probably still full today, Marshall said.

"There has been no loss of data, but dropping of classes is a big concern," Roos said. "The cashier's office has been trying to accommodate students."

But that's not a huge consolation for students who waited in long lines for more than an hour Tuesday.

"I get in and then it shuts down," said Lindsey Andersen, a USU student who spent all day trying to register. She said she waited in line, gave up and then tried the QUAD system, but nothing worked. In fact, due to the nature of the system, when the computers are down there is no alternative. So, if the QUAD isn't working the terminals at both the Registration and Cashier offices are down, too.

"The students aren't the only ones frustrated. It's frustrating for those of us in the Registration Office," said David Roos, director of Enrollment Services.

Roos said several temporary employees were hired for the busy season and are now stuck doing filing work when the system goes down.

"We're trying to deal with it quickly and we realize the big impact this has had on students," Roos said. "It's frustrating for everyone and we're trying to get it resolved as quickly as possible."

Source: The Utah Statesman via U-WIRE; Logan, Utah


-- Lee Maloney (leemaloney@hotmail.com), January 18, 2000

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