A faulty server caused four days of Wi-Fi outages for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s “UWNet” network, which is now stable after repairs.
Starting on the morning of Monday, Sept. 11 through Wednesday, Sept. 13, the network allowed users to connect but had no internet during high usage periods on campus. The outage came during the first full week of fall semester classes, with students and faculty saying their ability to complete coursework was heavily impeded
UWNet was also briefly down during the afternoon on Sept. 14 but functioned normally the rest of the day, according to the UW-Madison Division of Information Technology (DoIT). The outage came during the first full week of fall semester classes.
Most wired connections on campus, such as library computer labs or department-specific connections were unaffected, according to DoIT. However, many residence halls were impacted by the lack of internet.
“I couldn’t connect at all for three days,” said Charlotte Wood, a freshman and Slichter Residence Hall resident. “Allegedly, it was spotty coverage, but I just had no coverage. My phone plan does not have a hotspot so I had to buy Starbucks and hang out there for hours and bang out my homework… some of my classmates went to Buffalo Wild Wings.”
Some students and instructors relied on accommodations and extensions for classwork as students depend on the internet to complete and submit assignments.
“I got an email right away that said a deadline was being pushed back,” said Ellys Roberts, a freshman and Dejope Residence Hall resident. “My other teachers only mentioned the outages, but they never pushed back deadlines or accommodated students.”
DoIT staff and engineers from UW-Madison’s internet provider worked throughout the outages to try and find the source of the issue. Although they first thought the outage was caused by a software bug in vendor products used for on-campus Wi-Fi service, they eventually located a faulty server on campus.
“By Wednesday evening, the vendor analysis showed that our situation was in fact not a bug in the software supplied by our wireless vendor,” DoIT said in a statement. “[It] instead pointed to a server on the UW-Madison campus that was acting problematic.”
UW-Madison computer science professor and computer network scholar Paul Barford said he believed that one of the university’s servers had an issue interpreting IP addresses — the string of characters that identifies devices trying to connect to a network.
“My understanding was that the server that was responsible for passing out those IP addresses had a problem. Once they were able to fix that problem with the server, everything was up and running shortly thereafter,” Barford said.
Barford also discussed the reliability of the internet in general and on campus. He said engineers work to create redundancies so that the internet will work even if a part of the network malfunctions.
“Every so often, we experience something like what happened last week,” Barford said. “In all of my time at UW-Madison, which is more than 20 years, we've never had anything like what happened last week, so it is a very, very unusual event.”
DoIT clarified in an email to all students during the outage that there was no evidence to suggest a cybersecurity threat. They also plan to implement changes to their “alerting instrumentation” to detect problematic servers earlier and to install new hardware for a more “resilient campus wireless network.”
Noe Goldhaber is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in campus and state news reporting.