On Thursday, Nov. 5 around 3 p.m. UNB’s main data centre, located in Head Hall, experienced an unexpected outage affecting nearly all of UNB’s online services, including on-campus Wi-Fi, eServices, email, Desire2Learn and even the Unb.ca website.
The outage was caused by cutting an unlabeled cable during a minor construction project. This cable, according to vice-president of Information Technology Services, Terry Nikkel, was designed to switch the servers to backup power in case the main grid went offline.
Normally if a server went offline a backup server would automatically start up, either in Head Hall or the Wu Centre. Due to the ongoing renovations, however, these backup systems were unavailable, leading to this “unexpected and unforeseeable occurrence,” as Nikkel called it.
Since the outage happened during the work day, ITS was able to respond quickly.
“Everyone was here, everyone was focused; we have a really good protocol in place and a disaster recovery plan in place that is tested and up to date,” Nikkel said.
Unfortunately, this also meant it also had the greatest impact on staff and students.
The effects were immediately felt by fourth-year computer science student Carly Smith, who was studying for a midterm on campus when the network went dark. “It’s hard to study for midterms when all your labs, assignments and lecture slides are on D2L and you have no way to access them.”
Richard Eastwood, a third-year history major, was unable to access information for a paper that he had due later that day and was left feeling “helpless.”
Some students had to get extensions to work around this outage. Elliot Coy, a fifth-year computer science student, was in a lab when services went down.
“We couldn’t access the questions; eventually the lab instructor put the questions on the board after 10 or 20 minutes, but then we still couldn’t submit our work [to the online Dropbox],” said Coy.
The professor eventually extended the lab to give students more time to work on it but Coy believes UNB should have a policy in place mandating extensions after a lengthy D2L outage. “I’m in seven courses now. I was fortunate enough to have started early [otherwise] I don’t think I would have finished, as I was very busy the next day.”
A statement given by UNB explains that there is currently no policy, and a university-wide decision to extend deadlines during a major outage would have to be made by the vice-president academic, in consultation with others such as ITS and the registrar’s office.
Tim Daley, an information systems student, thinks that a policy to respond to these outages makes sense. “I think the onus is on the student to be prepared for situations like this, but there is a reasonable argument for having a policy. We’re in an age now where everything is on the cloud, so it is a reasonable expectation to not have everything downloaded.”
Some professors felt that the outage was brief enough to not move deadlines. Natalie Webber, a senior teaching associate with the faculty of computer science said, “We didn’t extend since D2L was back up by the time they needed it. If it had been down longer we would have had to extend it.”
When asked if she thought the university should have a policy she replied that there would have to be a discussion before any sort of formal rules were put in place.
Although the outage was disruptive, Nikkel says that since he began working with ITS six years ago the environment has become more reliable. “As we’ve seen,” he chuckled. “Just about anything can and will happen.”