Disappointing turnout reveals problems at IT meeting

Bill Thomas, Assistant News Editor

This semester, Wilkes University’s Information Technology Services staff has been plagued by unexpected power outages, network failure and defective equipment. However, the biggest obstacle ITS faces may be its need to improve its communication with students and faculty.

Evidence of that could be seen at a recent open meeting held by Wilkes ITS in the Miller Room in the Henry Student Center on Thursday, Nov. 3. Despite attempts to make the larger campus community aware of the event, few faculty members actually attended, and almost no students. Still, Gloria Barlow, the head of ITS, did her best to address the concerns of those present.

“We have had some unprecedented challenges this year,” Barlow said, pointing to the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Lee in September as major factor. The flood, Barlow said, sent ITS scrambling in a mad dash to prepare the school’s systems before the city of Wilkes-Barre evacuated its residents and shut off its electricity and gas lines, the latter unexpectedly affecting the school’s emergency backup generator.

“There were many lessons learned from that experience,” Barlow said.” I will say quite frankly that we were not well prepared for this type of a complete emergency. … I’ve been through a lot of emergencies and a lot of critical IT scenarios in my career, but never anything like this.”

Recovering from that experience was complicated even further, Barlow said, by a rash of “really unusual network problems,” including one noteworthy instance of major hardware failure. The source of these problems was ultimately traced back to defective network switches manufactured by Cisco Systems.

“Our network is composed of about 150 switches throughout all our buildings,” Barlow said, explaining that, initially, only 20 of those switches were believed to be faulty. After replacing those 20 switches, however, ITS decided to send the serial numbers for all of the school’s switches to Cisco, to make sure there weren’t more problematic switches. What they found came as a shock.

“I found out that, after Cisco’s review, they’d sent the order up to send us 100 new switches,” Barlow said. “That’s how many switches in our network infrastructure were known to be defective. In total, 120 of them.”

The challenge now, Barlow said, is in devising a workable schedule for when to replace the switches, an undertaking that will require shutting down the power of whole buildings throughout campus.

Currently, ITS is holding off on doing the bulk of these replacements until the upcoming break between the fall and spring semesters. It’s a move that aims to reduce the amount of interference imposed upon students and faculty, at the admitted cost of forcing them to tolerate more network problems of a less extreme but equally inconvenient nature in the interim.

For some, though, the network problems that crop up on occasion may actually be less of a headache than the process of trying to get them fixed. For Wilkes faculty, one of the biggest issues of contention proved to be the outsourcing of technical support calls to an off-campus help desk in Florida, something that happens whenever the on-campus help desk is closed or overwhelmed with calls.

“If I get to Florida, I’m screwed,” Wilkes computer science professor John A. Koch said, voicing his dissatisfaction with the abilities of the off-campus help desk. “If I get to [the on-campus] help desk I maybe have a chance.”

Koch also complained that, when placing a call to tech support in an instance where assistance is urgent, the process of navigating the ITS line’s automated answering system often results in a needlessly laborious wait, one that may be just as detrimental to the limited time teachers have with their students as the tech issue itself.

Though Barlow and Dominick DiBetta, who oversees the on-campus help desk, said there’s little that can be done to expedite the process when faculty members call in during peak hours, Koch argued that more could be done to let the campus community know what those hours are, and what the probability that a call will even get through is.

“I’ll bet if you asked faculty right now, half of them wouldn’t know there even is an on-campus help desk,” Koch said, highlighting an issue that all present agreed was one area where ITS was in definite need of improvement.

“Number one, we have to improve communication with the faculty and with the college as a whole,” executive director of IT Cindy Greene said, stating that a key component in improving Wilkes’ tech support issues is input from students and faculty. “We need to initiate more change. I’ve seen it just in the month since I’ve been here; it’s been a little too much status quo. I don’t want us getting left behind.”

One way ITS plans to get more student and faculty input is by reaching out more to the campus community with additional open meetings in the future. Though this one was sparsely attended, Barlow said the feedback those present provided was invaluable and that she hopes to schedule similar events on a regular basis every semester, with “hopefully greater participation from students.”

“I want people to know that this is what ITS is here for,” Barlow said. “We want to be as responsive as we can to anyone’s concerns.”

Wilkes’ on-campus Help Desk is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 A.M. – 4:30 P.M. The Student Run Computer Clinic is also located in the help desk area in the Farley Library. For tech support issues, students and faculty can dial ext. 4357 or call 1-866-264-1462.