Get a Handle on E-Mail

 
 
By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2001-01-08
 
 
 

Yes, your customers can use Hotmail, Yahoo mail or even ZDNet mail for their hosted e-mail, but it might not be a wise move. After all, free e-mail services are as far beyond accountability as the moon is from Earth.

When your customers want to get serious about e-mail, you have two options: Install an internal system—which can be time consuming and costly—or turn to a serious, carrier-grade, hosted e-mail solution. In this article, well discuss the latter.

Making Money from Mail One way to e-mail hosting profitability is to enter the mail outsourcing business like such companies as Commtouch (www.commtouch.com), Critical Path (www.cp.net) and Electric Mail Company (www.electricmail.com). Typically, those types of businesses provide mail services to other service providers like ISPs or ASPs, or directly to corporate customers. According to a forthcoming report by Ferris Research, a market and technology analysis house specializing in messaging, outsourcing e-mail will remain a rapidly growing business because of customer IT staff shortages and hosted e-mails reduced costs.

Another path is simply to add hosted mail services to your menu of ISP or internal mail services. While it may be impossible to make those services separate billing-line items to your customer, you should be able to increase your overall billing rate by delivering improved e-mail capabilities.

The Software Basics First, your e-mail server must be Internet-mail capable. That means, at the least, it should support Post Office Protocol (POP) and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). If your customers intend to use PCs in the office and laptops on the road, Internet Mail Access Protocol (IMAP) is a must. With IMAP, mail resides on the server so a user doesnt have to waste time transferring messages from one machine to another. Other popular mail protocols, like Microsofts Messaging Application Programming Interface or Lotus Vendor-Independent Messaging, are next to useless for Web mail hosting purposes.

A modern mail server also should be Web-mail capable. While host-based Web e-mail is almost always slower than a POP/SMTP server-client combination, the fact that you can check mail from any Web-connected device makes it wildly popular.

To use Web mail safely, though, you must take extra care on both the server and client side. At a minimum, the Web server should support 40-bit Secure Sockets Layer for e-mail connections. IMAPs host-based message storing also helps ensure that valuable messages arent left behind on public access PCs. But none of that will help if the user doesnt understand that he must clear any public Web browsers cache after reading mail, lest the next user can easily read his last messages.

For hosting purposes, virtual mail domains also are a must. With that ability, a single mail server can handle the messaging load for multiple domains. For example, with iPlanet Messaging Server you can set up such e-mail domains as accounting.bigcompany.com and marketing.bigcompany.com without the expense of additional server software or registering new domains.

One thing thats new, however, is the growing demand for wireless e-mail capability. The popularity of Blackberry handheld devices, which offer wireless e-mail, proves that customers arent willing to wait for a winner to be declared in the standards battle between Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) and i-Mode. So make sure the e-mail server you choose supports wireless devices.

Aim High Regardless of which e-mail server you deploy, it must be highly scalable. The more scalable the server, the higher your potential cash flow. Volume and still more volume from multiple customers is the key to generating profits from e-mails razor-thin margins.

Topflight directory support also is a plus in any hosted e-mail solution. At a minimum, use a directory that supports Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). Your two top candidates are the iPlanet Directory Server and Novells eDirectory (formerly Novell Directory Services). Non-LDAP oriented directories, like Microsofts Active Directory, arent even on the map.

Because of all those factors, Lotus Domino and Microsoft Exchange often arent the best choices for a hosted e-mail solution. Instead, iPlanets iPlanet Messaging Server, Openwaves (formerly Software.com) InterMail and Post.Office, and Sendmails Advanced Message Server are the names that service providers trust. Other Unix-based mail servers, such as qmail and Postfix, also are popular, but they lack organized support options and can only be considered by shops with in-house expertise.

As you might guess, successful e-mail hosting also relies on scalable operating systems. According to David Ferris, research director for Ferris Research, the most popular operating systems for e-mail hosting are Sun Solaris, IBM AIX and HP-UX. Linux is winning converts, thanks to its low cost and the imminent release of Linux 2.4. Windows NT, meanwhile, was a niche player at best in this arena, and Windows 2000 only now is starting to show up in host e-mail deployments.

The Hardware Basics No matter the chip inside, all e-mail servers need plentiful memory and disk resources. Given a choice between a faster processor and more RAM, with e-mail servers you should always opt for more memory.

As for disk requirements, you should have at least a giga- byte of disk room for every 1,000 users. You can get by with less, but youll be asking for trouble.

Needless to say, all your e-mail servers also should be dedicated servers. Big-time mail hosters also find that its worth their time to keep a dedicated domain name services (DNS) server on tap. Ideally, a DNS server should be only a Fast Ethernet link away from the mail servers.

iPlanet Messaging Server If the name doesnt sound familiar, that might be because youve only known iPlanet Messaging Server (IMS) 5.0 from its two immediate ancestors: Sun Internet Mail Server (SIMS) 4.0 and Netscape Messaging Server (NMS) 4.15. While there have been earlier versions of it, IMS is the first completely merged version.

IPlanet Messaging Servers ancestors have a reputation for being good, solid mail servers with high reliability. Mail administrators like it because, combined with iPlanet Directory Server and its most common deployment on Sparc systems running Solaris, it gives them a familiar suite for the most demanding mail jobs. While IMS currently supports only Solaris, a forthcoming edition will also support Red Hat Linux.

But that new version, out since November, does combine two very different feature sets. The core mail transfer agent, for example, is from Innosoft (by way of SIMS). But the message store is derived mostly from NMS. From our hands-on experience and ISP reports, that hybrid blend mail server is, nevertheless, flawless. But cautious mail administrators might want to wait until IMS 5.1 arrives shortly. While that version will primarily offer better localization features, it also will include bug fixes.

Openwave InterMail and Post.Office Do you want to serve millions of e-mail customers? If you do, Openwave has the mail server for you. The companys InterMail 5.0 carrier-level server can handle millions of customers. Just ask customers like @Home and Excite.

InterMail shares all the same characteristics of the other top mail servers: remote server control, centralized configuration, and so on. Its other excellent features, such as its distributed nature and dynamic load-balancing, cant be equaled on other systems … but it requires lots of configuration know-how.

Unlike IMS, InterMail supports a wide variety of operating systems like AIX, Compaqs Tru64 Unix (formerly Digital Unix), HP-UX, NT and Solaris.

Where InterMail steps out from its competition is with its extras. For example, you can provision users e-mail clients remotely and the system comes with its own set of billing tools. In short, InterMail doesnt just give your customers great mail service with all the trimmings, it gives you what you need to deploy a complete business mail solution.

The one exception to that is small businesses. InterMail is overkill for anyone with less than a thousand users. For small-to-midsize businesses, Openwave offers Post.Office 3.5.

Sendmail Advanced Message Server Love it or hate it, you cant ignore Sendmail. The open-source version runs on every Unix system known to man and many other operating systems, besides. So it is that today Sendmail is a heavyweight mail server that can—and does—handle more mail every day than any other server around.Theres no wonder why. Besides every version of Unix, Sendmail also supports Windows NT. The commercial version, Advanced Message Server (AMS), only currently supports Red Hat Linux and Solaris. Thats changing. In November, IBM and Sendmail inked a deal that will extend AMS to support other Linuxes, AIX, OS/400, OS/390, NT and Windows 2000.

And, despite a reputation as being difficult to use, it deserves its popularity. To put it bluntly, Sendmail just works. In its early days, Sendmail was thought of as being very insecure. As the years have gone by and the code has been debugged, that image is no longer deserved.

Lets Take a Commercial Break While the open-source Sendmail remains somewhat difficult to use, as partisans of qmail and Postfix always point out, the commercial version of Sendmail is quite another matter. Sendmail Advanced Message Server has all of Sendmails speed, reliability and scalability virtues—plus impressive administrative interfaces that youll surely appreciate.

Until recently, however, critics thought Sendmail might not meet the needs of 21st century e-mail users—especially mobile workers and road warriors. But that concern no longer is valid, thanks to recent developments on the business front. With Sendmails purchase of Nascent Technologies last month, commercial Sendmail now includes the Sendmail Mobile Message Server. That will give Sendmail partners the power to easily deliver Web-enabled messages or wireless e-mail via either WAP or i-Mode. Sendmail enters this century ready for your biggest e-mail challenges.

Lotus Domino and Microsoft Exchange Domino and Exchange get the headlines, but for hosted e-mail they dont necessarily get the business. The reason is simple: scalability.

Enterprise mail servers like Domino and Exchange typical- ly handle thousands of users. Carrier-level servers must handle hundreds of thousands. And, Microsoft-sponsored testing to the contrary, many e-mail ser- vice providers question whether Exchange 2000 can handle a global e-mail load.

Still, many Domino and Exchange customers are outsourcing those servers. As Ferris puts it, "[Customers] want to outsource the devil they know inside." As a result, full service xSPs like Intermedia advertise their Internet capable e-mail service, Intermedia Messenger Mail, while also providing Notes-based mail for customers who demand it.

Listen to the Pros In our experience from a customers viewpoint, neither Exchange nor Domino works well as Internet mail servers. Both products Web interfaces are frightfully slow. Sure, Exchange and Domino run well with their native clients, Outlook and Notes, respectively. But Outlook is bedeviled with security problems and the Notes client is a classic example of bloated software.

Moreover, Domino and Exchange are not cost-productive for xSPs because "theyre very support-intensive," notes Ferris. More support means more cost. And in the price-sensitive world of e-mail, making up those labor costs isnt easy for service providers.

Simon Hayward, a research director at the Gartner Group, puts it another way. In a report titled "Notes-Domino: Your Legacy or Your Future," Hayward writes: "Internet standardization has effectively reduced e-mail products to commodity status, so there is rarely a business justification for changing from one of the latest generation products to another."

Thats an overstatement. Still, it does illuminate one point. Unless your customer is willing to pay extra for an enterprise mail system like Domino or Exchange, you should recommend pure Internet mail servers. The costs are cheaper and the profits certainly are higher.

Take our word for it.

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