It was throwback Wednesday at UW-Madison. No emails to read. No voicemails to hear. No websites to check.
You’d think the digital blackout, caused by a storm-related power outage in the university’s main data center, might inspire a stampede to the library to check out some books. But the libraries were affected, too — their online checkout system was out, although they could use a backup system offline.
“I can’t remember an outage of this size,” said Mark Nessel, manager of systems engineering who’s been at the university since 1998.
The outage occurred at 7:55 a.m. Wednesday when the power source quit to the universal power supply — a roomful of batteries that power a data center on Dayton Street. The data center is the largest at the university although it’s supplemented by dozens of smaller centers across campus.
Power returned to the data center just after 5 p.m., although information technology officials warned it could take some time to gradually restore website and email access across campus.
The outage was caused by a tree that fell onto a pole near Broom Street, temporarily interrupting electrical voltage at a substation that serves campus, said Madison Gas & Electric spokesman Steve Kraus.
At the time of the outage, a powerful storm that led to downed trees and damaged houses was moving through Madison.
During the outage, websites hosted on wisc.edu, including the university’s homepage, went dark. Email addresses that end in wisc.edu — about 80,000 students and employees have one — stopped working. Class websites hosted on the Desire2Learn platform, used by campuses throughout the University of Wisconsin System, also took the day off due to the outage.
IT staff redirected the university’s homepage to the IT department’s Twitter page to more easily provide updates about the outage. Around 9 p.m., IT staff tweeted that email access had been restored, but the university homepage was still redirecting.
The electronic blackout inspired the Twitter hashtag #offlineUW, which resulted in discussions about exams in limbo, conducting student orientation sessions and email access here and abroad.
Campus electrical workers and the vendor for the universal power supply system worked throughout Wednesday to determine how to fix the problem, said Steven Krogull, UW-Madison director of systems engineering and operations.
Many of the batteries likely will need to be replaced after sustaining serious damage from the power disruption, Nessel said.
The outage disabled all wireless Internet connections on campus. Some people were able to connect through wired Ethernet connections.
Other systems, including keycard access to buildings and fire alarms, were not affected, said Laura Grady, spokeswoman for the Division of Information Technology.
The university sent out two notices about the outage on Wednesday morning through the WiscAlert system, in which text messages about emergencies can be sent to students’ cellphones. Other updates were being posted on Twitter (@UWDoIt) and Facebook (facebook.com/UWDoIT).
There is a backup, diesel generator that can supply power for up to 72 hours, Nessel said. However, it couldn’t be activated in this case because it, too, is run through the universal power supply system.