Network outages 101

Everything you need to know about campus outages

By Sam Heyliger

Staff Writer

Saint Michael’s College students received a slew of emails regarding a network outage on Tuesday, Feb, 2. This outage caused campus-wide issues connecting to Canvas, Zoom, and other programs requiring an internet connection. While not an unfamiliar occurrence, this was the first outage since students returned to campus for the Spring semester. Three emails were sent out, which left some students wondering what caused the outage.

To answer this, it’s important to understand how the network functions on our campus.
“There are many pieces to our network, but as far as the internet goes, we have two internet connections that go through an internet service provider that we work with, called, First Light,” said Shawn Umansky, network engineer at Saint Michael’s College. “We have two paths for redundancy, so if one goes down, the other can stay up.” “When we’re talking about the network, we’re also talking about the services that may be connected to the network. Examples include wireless, Canvas, Knightvision, printing, Office365, and One Drive. Not all these services are handled the same way,” he said.

Tuesday’s outage was caused by a failed switch, Umansky explained. “One of our core switches had a hardware failure, which any service that was tied to that was impacted. Wi-Fi was one of those services.” The engineers had to move all of the service traffic over to another switch after taking the non-functioning one offline. “There were certain components of our Wi-Fi infrastructure that were tied to that first switch. A lot of the Wi-Fi stayed up because some of the Wi-Fi was tied to the other switch,” Umansky emphasized.

An ongoing issue with network outages on campus is the pressure for students to keep up with classes in the midst of technical problems. “It’s important to be patient when the network goes out on campus because it seems like it’s something they can’t control, but it can be really frustrating when it happens in the middle of a class.” said Adrien Harwood ‘23, one of the many students affected by this outage.

“I think students should try to have a positive outlook if they can. There’s not much we can really do to control the situation but I do think they should be slightly critical.”
“Be generous to each other and try to be forgiving,” said Christina Root, professor of English. “Communicate with your teacher. It’s bound to happen when we’re in a pandemic.”

Can network engineers predict the timing of network outages on campus? Well, not exactly, according to Umansky. Routine checkups can be made to monitor potential problems in the future, but knowing when exactly an outage will occur is nearly impossible. Thousands of feet of cabling run underneath College grounds, allowing for network and service accessibility to every building on campus. Therefore, relying on detection systems is crucial in preventing outages on campus. Outages can also happen off campus, and will affect the ability to use internet services. “When there is an outage, what services are impacted are dependent on the location of the problem, and what services may be running in the area of the network,” Umansky explained. In Tuesday’s case, a hardware failure on one of the core switches caused the outage, he said.

However, the cause can vary. In fact, squirrels have been known to have bitten through cables on campus before and caused outages.

Considering the importance of network reliability, an outage is never good news. This outage was solved the same morning and students could continue classes as scheduled for the rest of the day. However, these network outages aren’t completely avoidable, so patience is important.

As a student, there are some measures you can take to help keep the network running smoothly. Pay attention to things like laundry machines, vending machines, printers, classroom computers, network jacks, and other services around campus that are connected to our network. If you see them unplugged or not functioning, and are experiencing network problems, contact the Help Desk. “We encourage you to bother us,” Umansky said. “Our job is to support you and make sure that you have a good experience on campus and you can do what you need to be successful in your classes, and outside of your classes.”