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Exeter Uni goes offline to fight mystery malware

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The University of Exeter took the unusual step of temporarily taking its network down this week in response to a virulent virus outbreak.

Computers at the south west England university were taken offline on Monday for a clean-up in response to an unidentified malware outbreak, which has since been contained.

By Thursday the vast majority of the network was back up and running, according to the Uni's lastest status update. Exeter is the seat of learning for 15,000 students with three campuses, two in Exeter and a smaller facility in Cornwall.

David Allen, registrar and deputy chief executive of the university, told students and lecturers that taking the campus network offline was a necessary step in fighting the infection, which came in through "PCs running Microsoft Windows Vista Service Pack 2".

"Experience of dealing with data corrupting viruses elsewhere indicates that it is essential to shut down the network ASAP to avoid so many machines and files being corrupted that it takes weeks to recover," Allen explained. "Therefore, although this is a PC rather than a network problem, we had to shut down the network to isolate the virus."

Exeter is yet to respond to our query on what strain of malware was involved in the attack.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, said that systems may have been taken offline to fight a worm that exploited a specific vulnerability, perhaps involving Vista. Cluley added that although disconnecting systems is not standard practice in malware cleanups, it may be necessary to stop a handful of systems reinfecting everything else.

The Cornwall campus was isolated from the main University of Exeter network to avoid spreading the malware. Systems in the main two campuses and across residential networks were taken offline during the shutdown. That meant both the Virtual Learning Environment and interactive teaching boards in lecture rooms were put out of commission.

Perhaps more seriously, Voice over IP (VoIP) telephones in offline buildings were also rendered unavailable during the clean-up operation. Outlook Web Access (OWA) and the MyExeter portal were working throughout, however, so students and teachers were able to send emails or files via off-campus systems. ®

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