William Xiao ’16 just needed to send a quick email before settling into a problem set around 10 p.m. one Monday in early September.
But as he sat in his Eliot House dorm room, keeping an eye on his inbox, the email did not come through. Xiao, who also serves as president of the Harvard Computer Society—the group that manages more than 7,000 student mailing lists—quickly realized his night was not going to turn out as planned.
As Xiao began to receive text and Facebook messages from friends concerned about why their emails were not sending, HCS board member Roger Zou ’17 trekked to 1414 Mass. Ave, where the society keeps its physical servers, tucked above Bank of America and CVS. He aimed to restart Virgil, the filer that stores all the data for HCS-hosted lists. At that point Virgil had been down for several hours, quieting hundreds if not thousands of active lists and websites on campus.
When Zou reached 1414 Mass. Ave, which primarily houses Harvard University Information Technology servers, he faced a series of “mission impossible” obstacles: a locked entrance, a terminal computer that needed a passcode, and a mesh cage that housed the servers themselves. Receiving instructions via a video call with Xiao, Xiao’s predecessor Saagar Deshpande ’14, and Deshpande’s predecessor, Zou identified the correct metal gray machine, and together they restarted the filer around 1 a.m..
“When the filer is running, fans are going off, and you can hear this constant buzzing,” Zou said. “Everything, everything went silent for two seconds. And then it started running up again, and a lot of lights began flashing.”
As the incident, the first in recent memory that blacked out of all of HCS’s services, suggests, the stakes for Harvard Computer Society are high. Run by five College students, the society is the only undergraduate-driven organization in the Ivy League that serves as the predominant web hosting and emailing list provider for other student groups. For Harvard students, HCS’s services are a cornerstone of daily communication.
As more clubs demand an online presence, HCS members say that its now-antiquated infrastructure can hardly support those requests—leading to a series of headaches like the early September blackout. With those headaches in mind, the more than 30-year-old club is finalizing a transition from its on-campus servers to the cloud and readying for the next phase of its service.
A MASSIVE REACH
Although most widely known for the algorithmic “DataMatch”—a personalized list of romantic potentials distributed on Valentine’s Day—Harvard Computer Society impacts almost every undergraduate’s life on a daily basis.
Among the thousands of mailing lists under HCS’s helm, including “quadlings,” “ghungroo-production-14,” “mather-official,” “culinary-discuss,” and “cabot-thesis,” lies the means of reaching those belonging to a certain theater production, academic field, House, or even those with a penchant for Japanese anime. The club also hosts at least dozens of active club websites.
“Most people don’t even know that HCS runs a lot of this in the background,” Deshpande, last year’s HCS president, said. “They assume, ‘Oh, there’s a House mailing list, and Harvard runs it,’ but they don’t connect the dots that actually a group of students are doing a lot of it.”
According to Deshpande, at its founding in 1983, HCS intended to teach its peers about early technology, publishing a magazine that would review the latest gadgets. That changed about 15 years ago, when the group transitioned from providing students a venue for discussion to providing actual services on club-owned servers.
While other means of web hosting have emerged over the years, HCS offers one of the only ways for a Harvard student group to host a website free of charge and avoid third-party fees that can approach $100 per year.
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