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An open letter to MIT IS&T and the MIT Administration

Why does the MIT Mystery Hunt need to be hosted at EC2 or get sponsorship and infrastructure from VMware, Google, or Rackspace in the first place? MIT is still, in my opinion, the world’s preeminent engineering institution, yet its inability to host something as relatively mundane as a student-run puzzle hunt activity (yes the largest in the world, but still it’s just a puzzle hunt on a web site) in 2014 would be an absolute embarrassment.

Currently, IS&T’s website itself is down, email delivery between MIT and the rest of the world is spotty, The Tech’s web site is inaccessible, 3down (the Institute’s site-outage notification site) itself is down, and most other MIT-related and hosted web sites other than the front page are also inaccessible. The director of IS&T has resigned (apparently not as a result of these issues, The Tech reports — I’d link to the article but, well, you know, the site’s down).

The administration and IS&T will surely blame the DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attack and Anonymous (the amorphous organization out there on the web organizing these attacks) for all of this. Yet a site like WBC (Westboro Bible Church) has been the target of attacks for weeks now, and none of their hateful websites are down or have needed to be mangled, or have been compromised or vandalized as badly as MIT’s have. Several other websites and companies (some of which I have worked for or currently work for) are also regularly targets of DDOS attacks and yet remain generally accessible and organized in the face of even the worst full-frontal internet assaults. IS&T’s response to the DDOS attack has been, from external appearances and my experiences on campus this weekend at least, worse than the attack itself. Continued vast service outages, intermittent detachment of MIT from email systems around the world, and zero effective communication with customers, departments, and students as far as I can tell. DDOS attacks are a fact of life on the Internet. They should, like Anonymous itself, be respected but above all expected.

At MIT, departments like the Broad Institute, Media Lab, CSAIL, etc. all have split off from MIT’s network and computing infrastructure because of IS&T’s apparent perennial failure as a service organization worthy of MIT and the people that work and study there. Here’s an anecdotal example of the kind of failures that these departments and organizations expect:

When I was a Systems Administrator at IS&T, installing what passed as a small-sized supercomputer into an IS&T server room (hosted for the department of biology if my memory serves correctly) caused a fire, power outage, and a rushed redesign of the power infrastructure, followed by several more power outages.

Universities like UIUC, the state systems at California and Florida, and Universities of Wisconsin, and Ohio all have well known, fully operational technology incubators and “startup factories” on their campuses connected and serviced through their network services, infrastructure, and hosting and IT departments. As the birthplace of so many startups, ideas, and technologies, it’s shameful that something like this can apparently not exist on the MIT network under the umbrella of IS&T in its current form. Is this because of current administration and management’s short-sightedness, entrenchments, technological incompetence, or a combination of all of the above?

As the winning team of the 2013 MIT IAP Mystery Hunt, we are already starting to look towards the 2014 hunt and the network and computing services it will require. By engaging with the new leadership at IS&T, our team should be able to use the actual MIT infrastructure to give us what we need and want for a successful activity that showcases MIT to all of the world. We want to be able to have this event hosted on MIT’s network. Anything else should be an embarrassment to whoever is in charge of IS&T as well as the rest of the Institute’s administration.

Benjamin O’Connor ’00