A bug in Microsoft's e-mail server software couldn't have surfaced at a worse time for the US House of Representatives.
Just as House members were preparing for their vote last Friday on impeachment, constituent e-mail messages began dropping into a void because of the bug, which sends Exchange servers into a continuous loop.
Microsoft says the immense volume of e-mail the US House of Representatives received last weekend about impeachment touched off the Exchange bug.
Exchange 4.0 has a limitation of 16Gb of data per server, a ceiling that was broken last weekend when more than 1 million messages flowed through the servers, according to Microsoft. Normally, the House has a daily e-mail count of 80,000 messages. Once the software’s limit was surpassed, messages on two of the House’s 14 servers were thrown into a loop. This slowed down delivery of all messages on the network.
''The possibility of message looping in Exchange 4.0 in particular network configurations has been known for some time,'' says Doug Stumberger, product manager for Exchange. However, Microsoft says the problem has been corrected in versions released after 4.0, which debuted three years ago.
Exchange 5.5, which the House is upgrading to next month, has no limit on the messages that can be managed, Stumberger said. ''So it is all but impossible for this situation to occur with Exchange 5.5," he said.
The message backlog that House members are experiencing is ''a normal side effect of the server being offline for a number of hours,'' he said. ''But mail should now be flowing through the system.''
The bug affected two of the House's 14 servers, which run Exchange 4.0 on Windows NT 4.0, according to Jason Poblete, a spokesman for the House Oversight Committee. Poblete said the House received more than 1 million e-mail messages Wednesday, double what it received Monday.
"The bug kept e-mail in a continuous loop without delivering them," Poblete said. As soon as House technical staff noticed the problem, they contacted Microsoft, which was able to fix the "programming bug" and return the House system to normal.
However, some offices are still waiting for backlogged mail.
"We haven't received any e-mail since Monday," said Carey Dearnley, press secretary for Representative George Gekas (Republican, Pennsylvania), a House Judiciary Committee member.
Gekas' staff had just posted an e-mail address for constituent feedback on Monday. But Paul Griffin, systems coordinator for Gekas, said he didn't publicise the e-mail address because he couldn't handle the anticipated load.
Congressman Ed Markey's office also has noticed a slowdown in e-mail traffic, despite a dramatic increase in the use of the medium by constituents.
"This morning there were only three outside messages in e-mail," said David Moulton, chief of staff for Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts). "So (constituents are) definitely having trouble getting through."
Too Little, Too Late
Ironically, the House was a month away from upgrading to Exchange 5.5, a system it had been testing for several months, Poblete said. "Exchange 5.5 corrects the looping problem," he said.
"We're the hub of democracy, we're supposed to get a lot of e-mail," Poblete said.
The House has a centralised e-mail facility that funnels e-mail to and from its more than 10,000 users, including representatives and their support staffs.
Each House member has a server at his or her office that retrieves the e-mail from the House servers. Poblete said a slowdown could be occurring there, as well.
Some representatives, such as Barney Frank (Democrat, Massachusetts), remained unaffected because they don't use e-mail.
"With e-mail, there's no way to tell for sure if the person is writing from your district," said David Moulton, Frank's chief of staff.