When University of Georgia student Chimezie Osondu tried to find his classes on the first day of spring semester, he couldn’t log in to Athena. He knew his classes were in Gilbert Hall but struggled to find their exact locations.
“I remember I just started contemplating, ‘Do I actually want to go to class if Athena isn’t working?’” Osondu said.
On Jan. 7, the first day of spring semester classes, students were unable to log on to Athena, eLearning Commons, OneSource, OneUSG Connect and other university web services starting around 9 a.m. UGA’s vendor assisted in restoring the system by 1 p.m. that day, according to a Jan. 8 Archnews email from Timothy Chester, the UGA vice president for information technology.
In the email, Chester said the university’s new Single Sign-On service couldn’t “handle the intense network load of first day of class traffic.” According to the Enterprise Information Technology Services website, SSO “provides improved authentication connections, better security, and the ability to use two-factor authentication to access web applications.”
Students use Athena to view their class locations and drop or add courses to their schedules. Faculty and staff post assignments, grades and class announcements on eLC.
Osondu, a senior biological sciences major, couldn’t access his class locations or syllabi during the shutdown.
Although Osondu made it to his classes by asking friends to help him find the rooms and buildings, he said the ordeal made him want to “stay in bed and not go anywhere.” Other students were even more reluctant to attend class due to the hurdles caused by technical problems.
Marketing major Jessica Moody said the shutdown was a “conundrum” that inhibited her from successfully finding her classes. Moody said she was less prepared than she would have been in earlier years. Because she did not know the class locations, Moody decided to skip her classes.
Other students such as senior psychology major Cierra Nell took issue not with the university, but with students’ reliance on technology. To Nell, the temporary shutdown posed only a minor inconvenience rather than an excuse to miss class.
“Students need to be way more proactive in their education,” Nell said. “Relying on technology for everything is completely irresponsible.”
Last year, Georgia Institute of Technology experienced technical difficulties when its network was hacked. The hack exposed personal information, an issue of cybersecurity rather than a system outage like the UGA SSO crash, according to Eric Overby, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s Information Technology Management program. Georgia Tech learned of the hack in March of last year.
Cybersecurity breaches involve a malicious attack, while system outages result from mechanical failure, such as when the “drive crashes or someone kicks a computer,” Overby said.
“Both of them happen and both of them are somewhat unavoidable,” Overby said. “You try to limit the frequency of them, and the impact of them, but it’s just the kind of thing that will happen from time to time.”
Other universities, such as the University of Alabama, use central authentication systems similar to UGA’s. Meagan Bennett, the director of customer relations in the UA Office of Information Technology, said Alabama students have not experienced a shutdown similar to the UGA one since UA’s system was installed.
“We have a lot of certain measures and policies in place to make sure that we are operational at all times since our job is to provide technology services that are reliable but also innovative for our students,” Bennett said.
Single Sign-On timeline
Despite the recent issues, Chester said Athena has been “pretty stable” since it launched in 2014. That being said, it has gone through some changes throughout the years. In 2018, the university integrated its sign-on service with the Duo Mobile app, which aimed to provide more security by requiring students to verify their log-in attempts to eLC, Athena, vLab and the remote access VPN. This two-step authentication process was soon expanded to require verification when logging into UGAMail and OneDrive Business.
UGA first announced the launch of the SSO service on July 20. According to the EITS website, this measure was taken “to continually improve the University’s information security posture.”
EITS performed maintenance 14 times since the end of June to transition UGA applications to the new SSO service, according to the EITS systems status website.
Chester said Athena experienced an interruption due to “information security-related changes” to the system in November. In this instance, the problem occurred with the Athena application itself. He said that since the shutdown, the university has made adjustments to Athena. According to Chester’s Archnews email, EITS worked with “outside consultants over the holiday break to perform network load tests of Athena and to isolate the problems.”
“We have higher confidence that this situation will not occur again in March and April when early course registration commences again,” Chester wrote in the email.
For freshman Ashley Childers, this recent issue is reminiscent of the technical problems that occurred in November, which Chester called “complex and challenging to assess.”
Childers, a public relations major, remembers having trouble registering for classes in November, which was “stressful” because of Athena’s issues. Childers said she tried multiple browsers to no avail and was frustrated that the system could not handle the traffic.
“I totally get that it was the big day where everyone was online, but also if you’re going to assign everyone the same day [for registration], make sure your software is at a caliber where it can support that much visiting capacity,” Childers said.
Chester said he believes the SSO issue has been resolved “for good.” According to an email from Chester to The Red & Black, the system and services have remained stable since the issue was fixed on Tuesday.
“We appreciate the patience of our students, and we look forward to providing a stronger student experience with Athena the rest of this semester and beyond.” Chester said.