Hundreds of students, some from as far as Mindanao, came to UST last Oct. 25 to enroll only to be told that the enrollment was postponed because of a problem with the computers. Students who had already paid their tuition were given written receipts and were told to return for computerized registration forms.

Meanwhile, the e-Learning Access Program’s (E-leap) on-line services broke down while students were having their on-line examinations last Sept. 2.

The digital ID system also broke down.

The recent breakdown of critical electronic facilities on campus proved to be trying times for the University as students, faculty, as well as administration personnel who are increasingly adapting to the school’s ambitious computerization program had to go back to the old manual system in order to get operations going.

Computer woes

According to Polly Blanco, senior programmer of the Santo Tomas e-Service Providers (Steps) which is in charge of UST’s computer hardware, there was a procedure in the software that was not supposed to be running.

An execution plan was running both in the data base and in a disk, which makes the query undergo two processes instead of one, slowing down the enrollment process, explained Blanco.

As of press time, the cause of the execution plan is still unknown although Blanco said anybody could have created a program that had the effect.

UST had a breakthrough in computer service when it was one of the few universities in the Philippines to provide the Internet facilities in 1995. It had infrastructures dedicated only to network and live Internet connections. UST has almost 3,000 computers now, compared to the initial 500.

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Against the grain

The automation of all records and processes, as well as installation of computers in laboratories required laying of fiber optic cables from one building to another. The cables laid then are still in use today.

But because of the frequent problems with the connections, UST had planned last September to rehabilitate its network.

Mario Raagas, Steps computer engineer, said the new fiber optic lines would take at least three months to install. In the meantime, cable lines temporarily accommodate the Internet services of each college.

But there are several implications in installing new equipment while an old network is still in place.

Amante Garcia, Cisco Academy director, said the problem may lie in the integration. In a complex network design such as that of UST, compatibility of the hardware and software is important, he said.

UST seems to have overlooked compatibility issues when it acquired equipment incompatible with the existing fiber optic lines.

According to Jale Nonan, Cisco certified engineer, it would take a year to change the entire connections to suit the new equipment. During that time, breakdowns may happen again.

“If you want to replace the old network you should also replace those that are incompatible with the new equipment,” he said.

According to Raagas, there is a need to replace the old switches in all colleges because they are incompatible with the new one installed at the UST data center.

“Iyong mga lumang switches na nakakabit sa different colleges, hindi sila magkakitaan ng bago,” said Raagas.

But Nonan said the breakdowns could have been avoided if the University had back-up equipment to support the almost-seven-year-old Cisco switch used in the network.

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A glance at UST's 'other' research center

UST had back-up equipment but this was already being incorporated into the core switch to accommodate the growing number of data and the large number of network users, said Nonan.

Transition period

Nonan says a fumble in the transition period, from the old Cisco-based network set up in 1995 to a newer and faster one, might cause more headaches.

“Supposedly, when the new network is up, we will be fine. But if there’s a hitch during the transition, there will be problems, like what we are experiencing now,” explained Nonan.

The old network can still handle the normal use of the system like the Internet and the grading system during the transition period but not when other services like enrollment and admissions are accessed.

“Iyong hardware kasi natin is already two years old na with the same specification and capacity but iyong pumapasok lumalaki,” Blanco said. “We have a plan to upgrade our hardware from Compaq ES-40 to Blade server under Linux.”

The September computer breakdown happened while almost 5,000 students were having on-line examinations. UST students were not the only ones affected by the breakdown since 10 schools also depend on the University’s network. UST is a regional academy Cisco, which trains faculty members and students on various computer programs in other schools. They were also having on-line examinations that time.

Garcia suggested that there should be an independent body to find out why the problems happen.

Computer-dependent

According to Nonan, although downtimes are inevitable in any network, some are preventable like what happened in UST in the last two months.

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Let me count the ways

“The system is not perfect but it does its work. If we could manage that, we could have prevented the breakdowns,” he said. “But the equipment is not the whole problem.”

Steps should invest in manpower, especially programmers, to improve the system. This is so because no institution can survive, with the amount of data and processing needed in maintaining a university, without going automated, he added.

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