Why does Axess crash during course enrollment?

Jan. 31, 2022, 11:09 p.m.

Every quarter during course enrollment, Stanford students sit in front of their computers frantically refreshing their screens in frustration. The reason? Stanford’s student and employee portal, Axess, and its course enrollment system. Hosting over 18,000 students per quarter, Axess has received criticism year after year from students who experience frequent crashes and technical difficulties.

Students use Axess to enroll in classes, view transcripts, see financial aid awards and tuition changes, fill out online course evaluations and complete other tasks. The platform is deeply embedded within Stanford’s history — Axess, named as a play on the Stanford Axe, was originally installed as a mainframe-based system in 1983. The platform was written in SPIRES, a database and programming language developed at Stanford that was nearly defunct by the turn of the century. In 2000, following student and faculty complaints about the platform’s many deficiencies, Stanford purchased new software from PeopleSoft as part of a $20 million project to help add functionalities and improve performance.

Even in 2000, Stanford community members expressed considerable concern over whether the software update would be able to improve the logjam that students experience at course enrollment. At a Faculty Senate meeting, former registrar Roger Printup said he was optimistic that the new software configuration would help “greatly ameliorate” such problems in the future.

But more than 20 years later, many students are still missing out on enrolling in their first-choice classes due to course signup crashes, even with the addition of SimpleEnroll, a feature added to Axess to facilitate smoother course enrollment.

“I have experienced crashes during every enrollment period,” said Undergraduate Senate co-chair Alain Pérez ’23. “Usually right when it opens, the system crashes, and many people can’t enroll. It’s usually SimpleEnroll that crashes first and later the traditional Enroll page.”

Wait times can last up to an hour for some students, according to Deven Bansal ’25, as course enrollment opens at the end of every quarter, leading thousands of students attempting to enroll at the same time.

“Axess always crashes and it feels like class enrollment is more of a technical difficulties lottery than anything,” Bansal said, citing his difficult winter course enrollment experience. “I ended up needing to wait about an hour to enroll in any classes, which made me unable to even get on the waitlist for multiple that I really wanted to take.”

Bansal’s experience is not an isolated one, he said, noting that “it seems nearly inevitable for everyone to miss signing up for a class due to Axess enrollment at least once in their Stanford education,” Bansal said. Some students also struggle to find solutions to their problems, according to Bansal, and opt to “wait it out” like him.

Student Affairs spokesperson Pat Lopes Harris said that the problems with Axess lie in web-authentication issues. During winter course enrollment, an unexpected outage to the system created a bottleneck of login attempts, which required servers to be refreshed to clear the backlog.

According to Harris, the web-authentication issue that disrupted winter course enrollment “has been identified and addressed,” and the University “anticipates a smooth registration process for students for spring quarter.”

Harris also wrote that plans are also being developed to refresh the Axess portal design to modernize the interface and improve user experience later this year.

Still, some students speculate that Axess servers may be inadequate for hosting large volumes of students, and believe Axess should be redesigned to handle higher capacities.

“I think the site should have higher capacity for these time periods, because it’s not fair to those who might not have good access to Wi-Fi at home, and campus Wi-Fi is unreliable sometimes,” Pérez said.

Bansal suggested that Stanford “add a tiered signup system with different time slots to reduce load,” as Axess “has all cohorts apply at the same exact time.”

Regardless of whether scheduling changes could improve the platform’s stability, Bansal said, Stanford’s class registration system still has plenty of room for improvement.

“I do not understand why one of the best CS schools in the world has the least efficient class sign up system possible,” Bansal said.

Aaron Bao is a high school reporter in The Stanford Daily Winter Journalism Workshop.

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