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FAS Network Adds New Linux Servers

Server platform change-over occurs with minor glitches

By Laura L. Krug, Crimson Staff Writer

Students logging on to check their e-mail with Pine may have noticed unusual warning messages this week as Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services (HASCS) began rolling out a set of Linux-based servers—a change meant to bring Harvard’s servers up to date with the newest technology.

The transition, which has been in planning for a year and a half, will take the old Unix-based servers out of commission. Kevin S. Davis ’98, the coordinator of residential computing, said Linux—a no-cost brand of Unix that has gained popularity in recent years—will allow HASCS provide the same services to users, on a smaller budget.

“Lots of programs have been developed that want to run on Linux,” said Davis, who is also a Crimson editor. “It’s been a wonderful development over the last decade. We’ve seen other universities make great strides with it.”

The main reason for the changeover, Davis said, is to enable a hardware upgrade, abandoning the nearly-obsolete microprocessors currently used.

The switch, which began last Friday, has been mostly smooth sailing except for a few glitches, Davis said. He said the largest transition-related problem reported thus far involved transferring files using SecureFTP, which the systems did not support. By midday Saturday, the Linux administration group at HASCS had it up and running.

About half the new machines have been installed and will be gradually phased in. For now, when a user accesses e-mail, he or she might be using either of the two types of servers.

The most apparent difference between the two for the typical user, Davis said, is a warning message that pops up during the login process, reminding unauthorized users that they may not use the system.

A few users, however, may notice that a number of scripts—simple programs like a weather monitor and text-based web-browsing capabilities that can be run via SecureCRT, or “login” scripts that execute when a user enters their account—did not survive the changeover.

Davis said that whenever a user reports such a loss, HASCS staff try to restore use of it.

“Anything that just wasn’t automatically carried over, we’ve been very accommodating where we can be to get them running,” Davis said.

The overhaul of server equipment comes at a time of major staff turnover at HASCS. Both Davis and HASCS Director Franklin M. Steen say most positions within Harvard computing are not career jobs, and that since they are often filled by fresh college graduates, they are also often vacated by would-be graduate school students.

HASCS is losing the employee who managed all user accounts and another, Davis’ supervisor, who managed student and account services. Steen also listed departures from the Instructional Computing Group and the Student Services and Client Services Group. And a member of the three-man Unix personnel—responsible for keeping the servers running and for the upgrades to Linux—will soon depart.

But Steen said he doesn’t worry that those positions will sit vacant for too long.

“Every job we post gets hundred of applicants and some of them are quite good,” Steen said.

Regarding the distribution of work until replacements can be found, he said that as issues are generally handled by teams of multiple people, he expects nothing to fall through the cracks.

“We can cover the work in the short term and it only has to be in the short term,” since HASCS anticipates that replacements will be put in place soon, Steen said. “We have a good enough staff to fill any vacancies. There really is nothing as far as vacancies go that affect the system.”

He added that a search is ongoing for one Unix expert but that he thought it would end soon.

The primary method of support to residential computing users, including all on-campus undergraduates, will also see a shakedown. HASCS is reevaluating its student User Assistant (UA) needs as a result of changes in computing behavior at the school, Steen said.

For instance, between 80 and 85 percent of freshman last year brought laptop computers to school. That increases students’ ability to bring their computers into the Science Center to receive help directly from HASCS staff—and decreases the need for UA’s to go to dorm rooms to provide help.

Steen said he foresaw a modest paring-down of the UA program, eliminating between five and 10 positions.

“We hope to be able to diminish the number of people we have to station in houses,” said Steen. “When you have as many houses as we do, with as many entryways as we do, it’s very hard to cover those adequately, and to cover them requires a lot of UAs. We’re trying to adjust that.”

He said the time of University-wide tight budgets will have its impact on HASCS. While its budget did not get cut this year, it also did not increase, as it has in years past.

“It does affect you because you have some increased costs,” Steen said. “That’s why we’re trying to make some organizational changes, to save some money.”

—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at krug@fas.harvard.edu.

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