Experts say problem easily avoidable, HRD ministry orders inquiry.
The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) today admitted that their maiden attempt to make their Common Admission Test (CAT) a computer-based one had come a cropper, acknowledging that 7,000-8,000 students were unable to take the tests over the past three days.
They attributed the "technical snags" to the ‘Conficker’ worm and "some hardware issues", and assured that necessary steps are being taken to repair the damage. Conficker, also known as Downup, Downadup and Kido, is a computer worm targeting the Microsoft Windows operating system. It was first detected in November 2008.
At a press conference in Ahmedabad, Samir Barua, Director of IIM-Ahmedabad, admitted: "Yes, we have failed in the first three days but we will correct it." He said all the affected students would be re-scheduled in the coming days.
When asked about mock tests having been conducted for the computer-based test, Barua said, "Mock tests had been conducted. Pankaj Chandra (director of IIM Bangalore) and I had visited the centres and the mock tests were alright."
Barua assured the authorities would accommodate the left-out students in the remaining capacity of the labs but if they (the centres) fell short of capacity, the tests might be rescheduled "by a couple of days". There are a total of 104 centres and 361 labs with a capacity of 17,000 students at any given time.
CAT was scheduled between November 28 and December 7 in 32 cities. Nearly 241,000 applicants have registered and over 24,000 students were to sit for the exams every day, in two slots of 12,000 each. Around 180-200 students can be accomodated at each of the 105 centers (which was cut down to 55 on Day 2). CAT is mandatory for students who wish to study at the seven IIMs and over 150 other B-schools in India.
Charles Kernen, CEO of Prometric (US) — which signed a multi-million dollar contract with the IIMs for the computerised CAT — said the company took several security measures but couldn’t prevent the virus attack. "We were unable to remove the virus, so we went back to each individual lab to fix it and increased the degree of virus protection of each lab. We also changed the access control for lesser vulnerability," he added. In the past six months, about 3,000 people had been trained by NIIT, which provides physical infrastructure and personnel for the test.
The Union human resource development (HRD) ministry has written a letter to CAT convener Satish Deodhar asking him to give a report. "We have already ordered an inquiry into the matter but we can’t give an opinion now. We are very concerned about this because a large number of students have been put to inconvenience because of this. Adequate care should have been taken in this regard and we hope this is not repeated again," Union HRD minister Kapil Sibal told Business Standard.
Meanwhile, even as some internet experts and management test-preparing institutes rubbished the virus claims and attributed the glitches to "lack of preparedness on the part of Prometric and the IIMs", trouble continued for the third day of CAT. Lack of communication from both the developer of the computer system for CAT, Prometric (India) and the IIMs only added to the woes of the students.
"When we reached the test centre at IMS Ghaziabad at around 8 am, we found the gates closed and we were told that the test stood cancelled. None of the authorities bothered to send an SMS. Also, in spite of a huge crowd waiting outside the premises, none of the Prometric or IIM authorities, who were present there, came out to speak to us," said Abhishek Gupta, who was supposed to take the CAT on the third day.
Exams continued to start late in many centres, with some of them being as late as 45 minutes to an hour.
Outstation candidates were miffed the most over lack of communication. "There were students and their parents coming down from far off places like Bareilly who were stranded," added Gupta.
There were reports of students not being intimated about rescheduling of their tests on Monday, and thus missing it. Meanwhile, those whose tests were cancelled on Day 1 and 2 are yet to hear from Prometric, despite assurances that they would get an SMS or call by Sunday evening. Nearly 50 labs in 22 centres been shut down on Sunday for repair after students complained of problems on day one.
Vivek Jain, a 28-year-old marketing professional from Bangalore, regrets having attempted the CAT this year. "Although my test started smoothly, people around me faced several technical issues and this in turn disturbed my concentration.While these people will get a re-schedule, we won’t get another chance. I have lost a year’s time preparing for this exam".
Experts are not ready to buy the virus theory. cited by Prometric and IIM authorities. If one is using existing, outsourced infrastructure (computers) to conduct one of India’s most prestigious exams, formatting the systems (deleting everything from the computer) and loading ONLY the operating system and the CAT software on this secure system would have prevented the so called "virus attack".
"The news of virus being the reason for the crash is unbelievable. We have conducted similar tests with around 25,000 of our students taking the test on the internet simultaneously without any glitches. The computer-based CAT should be much easier than that," said Sujit Bhattacharya, director, technology, at Career Launcher.
Other experts debunked the virus claim, too. "Viruses are a problem only when we connect to the internet. In this case, when you are connecting to only one server, there is no chance at all of the virus getting into your system. While we are conducting a test, we make sure that the user cannot access anything on the local machine. It is sterilised clean and the chances of a virus attack are zero. This is basically to prevent copying. Prometric, by admitting that a virus attack has taken place, has put the future of the exam at risk. What stops one student for going to court and saying that the virus changed the answers before it sent the data to the server?" asked DSK legal consultant and cyber expert Vijay Mukhi.