your.name@queensu.ca?

If you’re wondering about the bits and bytes of QCARD—or why your QLINK address looks more like an equation than a name—Features Editor Matthew Trevisan has the answers

Credit: 
Graphic by Ian Babbit
Credit: 
Graphic by Ian Babbit

Thanks to an initiative by Queen’s Information Technology Services (ITS), Lee Atkinson’s e-mail address no longer looks like her first and last name were scrambled in a blender.

“Mine was a really weird e-mail address,” said Atkinson, who works for the drama department as an administrative assistant. Atkinson said people who tried to send her e-mails would often get the address wrong.

Last February, ITS launched a pilot project for the University’s faculty and staff entitled your.name@queensu.ca, allowing participants like Atkinson to replace their Net ID e-mail addresses with addresses stating their first and last names only. Instead of atkinsna@post.queensu.ca, her e-mail address is a tidier lee.atkinson@queensu.ca.

The software project creates the new address by recognizing a user’s first and last name from the University’s master directory for all staff and faculty. Should any faculty or staff members have the same name, a user can create an alternative address by inserting his or her middle initial. A user can still retrieve e-mails from his or her existing Net ID e-mail address from people who weren’t notified of the address change. “I think it’s a great idea,” Atkinson said.

She did, however, run into a problem with the service in the summer. When she tried to place a vacation stop—which informs e-mail senders a person is away—on her new e-mail address during her July holidays, she found it didn’t work with her new address.

“I had all of these people wondering why I wasn’t responding to my e-mails,” Atkinson said. “I wouldn’t have changed [my old address] had I known that.”

The service wasn’t working when she vacationed in August either, she said.

The glitch is an example of why students can’t have access to the pilot project yet. ITS wants to first test the service with the smaller body of faculty and staff, said Andy Hooper, Manager of Systems Operations and Network Planning.

“There are a lot more students,” he said.

Hooper said the vacation-stop glitch occurred when ITS first implemented the service, and has now been fixed.

“We added that late in the summer, and there was an initial problem during the first week, but we corrected it,” Hooper said.

Students waiting for the new service may not have to wait much longer. Hooper said ITS hopes to extend your.name@queensu.ca to students next year.

“We recognized that [the alphanumeric Queen’s e-mail address] is no longer satisfactory,” Hooper said of the cryptic Net ID e-mail addresses students have used since the early 1990s.

Using the new e-mail address and the existing Net ID address comes at no extra cost to the University, Hooper said.

“There’s no charge for any of it—it’s some additional complexity, and as you change over there’s some repercussions on things like mailing lists,” Hooper said.

“It does take some additional effort, but [the new address] is actually an alias or a synonym for the same account, so it’s the same mailbox.”

As part of their AMS election campaign last January, Team RHM proposed a solution that would see the AMS work in cooperation with ITS to allow students to use the new e-mail addresses, said Vice-President (University Affairs) Shiva Mayer.

Mayer said ITS told him in January they eventually wanted to implement the project for students but didn’t give a specific timeframe for when students could use their new e-mail addresses.

“They just kept telling us ‘soon’,” he said.

Mayer said Team RHM wanted to help bring your.name@queensu.ca to students if the University didn’t have the service available for them well into the 2005/06 academic year. He proposed a system where the AMS Information Technology Office (ITO) would provide an e-mail forwarding service to students, which would allow students to use the your.name@queensu.ca in principle.

“People could essentially send e-mail [to a your.name@queensu.ca address] and it would be forwarded to [the user’s] QLINK account,” Mayer said.

The cost for the AMS to maintain such a system would be “very little,” since the AMS wouldn’t be paying for the storage of e-mail, Mayer said.

“There’s no mail delivered. We’re just turning mail around,” he said.

The AMS can’t move on with the proposal on its own, however, since ITS owns the rights to your.name@queensu.ca.

“This requires cooperation with the University,” said Mayer, adding that the University expressed interest in his idea at the end of last year.

Mayer said the AMS hasn’t yet discussed the new e-mail service with ITS this academic year. He said he intends to approach them once the ITO finishes with the student activity fee opt-out period, which ends on Sept. 23.

“Hopefully that would be their stance this year,” he said.

As the flurry of first-week activity on QCARD starts to settle, ITS is looking to address the issues students have raised with the performance of QCARD during pre-registration in the summer and during the add/drop period beginning the last week of August, Hooper said.

“We’ve been adding processor resources and tuning the system,” he said. “This past add/drop period has been better than we’ve ever had before.”

The University could buy a much larger system to accommodate the cyberspace traffic jams, Hooper said, but it would cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars more.” Right now, Hooper said, the QCARD system costs the University about $30 per student per year.

The Office of Institutional Research and Planning reported 14,168 full-time undergraduate students attended the University last year, which means the University spends more than $425,000 on QCARD for undergraduate students.

“It’s a bit of a balance between the cost of having the capacity of a reserve [to better handle the first few hours of pre-registration] and the degradation of service in the beginning of the pre-registration period,” Hooper said.

Ideally, ITS would have a simulation where they could continually test the demands of pre-registration on the system, Hooper said.

“But it’s very expensive and time-consuming,” he said. “We made some improvements with a small-term test.

Week-to-week we were learning in the summer and applying the changes.”

QCARD often overloads during the first few hours of pre-registration because the system runs into a problem Hooper likened to hundreds of people trying to get through a single door.

“The processor we have runs at about ten per cent of its capacity throughout most of the year,” he said. But during pre-registration, Hooper said the server runs at 200 per cent of its capacity.

“We’ve attempted to simulate this in testing,” he said. “We’ve tried each time to make it better. I think it’s improved quite a bit.”

ITS developed the QCARD software locally in the 1980s, but they have updated and extended the software over the past 25 years, Hooper said.

“Having custom software allows flexibility,” he said. “You can control scheduling of new software instead of keeping up with a commercial vendor’s schedule. It’s also fairly inexpensive.”

An example of commercial software equivalent to QCARD would be Datatel, which the University of Guelph uses for its software programming, said Garrett Boss, Computing and Communications Services technician from the U of G.

McGill University began phasing out a phone-in system for course registration in 1998, and now uses an on-line system named Minerva.

“[The old phone-in system] was a horrible pain in the butt—everyone hated it,” said Joshua Ginsberg, McGill Daily coordinating editor.

Ginsberg said the new system involves easier access for course calendars during McGill’s add/drop period.

“I personally think it’s a great system,” he said.

Queen’s revamped QCARD during the 2001-02 academic year, Hooper said. ITS conducts routine system-checks starting around 8 p.m. during the week, and backs up the system every Sunday morning, “in case we have a disaster,” Hooper joked.

There are still small imperfections within the system. For instance, when a user logs in to QCARD, clicks the “Fee Account Information/AMS Opt-outs” link in the main menu and then clicks the “Fee Account Information” button within that window, QCARD automatically logs the person out of the server. Once users finish viewing the account records, they have to log back in to QCARD.

“We’re making some improvements on [being able to stay in the system],” Hooper said.

He said the automatic logout doesn’t serve any security purpose to prevent another person from viewing a user’s financial statements. Instead, ITS implemented the fee account page on a different server in an earlier programming environment and hasn’t yet updated it, Hooper said.

The University has created a committee to review QCARD and decide whether or not to continue with the service, Hooper said, but told the Journal he wouldn’t comment any further because, he said, it’s a matter for University Registrar Jo-Anne Brady.

Brady did not return the Journal’s phone calls by press time.

—With files from Megan Grittani-Livingston

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