School system email server is up and running; cause of crash unknown

An archiving server preserved data, so all is not lost after primary and backup servers crashed.

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The main email server for all of Martha’s Vineyard public schools was restored on Monday, Nov. 21, after crashing on Nov. 14 and remaining down for a week. In a phone conversation with The Times on Monday, Clifford Dorr, the information technology (IT) director of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, said a hardware failure took out both the main email server and the backup system.

There is a separate archiving server, in compliance with state and federal regulations for recording communications, that did not go down, so lost emails can be recovered, account by account.

“We actually didn’t lose any emails in the process of the server being down,” Mr. Dorr said. “We have yet to restore them, but they’re not lost.”

The schools use First Class, a web-based email program sold by OpenText Corp., a Canadian company.

What caused the server to crash is still unknown. Mr. Dorr said he didn’t think that the server was hacked, but that he couldn’t yet rule it out because he has not been able to revive the hard drives on the machine to test them for malware or viruses.

Coinciding with the election, in the week before the crash, there was a surge of email being identified as spam. Most of those emails were captured by the spam filter and did not get through to the main server, but Mr. Dorr said it was possible that something could have gotten through.

“Spam itself tripled in the week before the server crashed,” Mr. Dorr said.

There were separate and minor failures prior to the crash, when the server stopped processing email. Mr. Dorr reset the server, tested it, and it passed without any issues. So when the server finally crashed, the severity of it was felt when the backup system failed simultaneously.

The crash affected all the public schools on the Island, as email is the primary form of communication for the schools. To communicate with parents, staff used the parent-student web portals as a communication tool, as well as G Suite for Education, formerly known as Google Apps for Education, which allows a school to use another email system in addition to the main one.

“Each school definitely has its own needs and processes,” Mr. Dorr said. “I don’t know that sharing a single mechanism would be the way to go, but it’s certainly not out of the question. After this, we’re definitely looking at what options we have to create a better system.”