Desktop Mail in the University Environment

This is a very old paper I wrote and published on Febrary 8, 1991.

At Northwestern University, we currently support two different mail 
systems for the Mac, QuickMail and Eudora.  I've worked very extensively 
with both of them for a long time now, and one of my main jobs in our 
networking group at Academic Computing and Network Services (ACNS) is 
supporting both of them for use throughout the NU community.  I have come 
to the conclusion that, in our environment, in most cases Eudora and POP 
clients in general are better than QuickMail and commercial local-area 
mail programs in general.  I would like to present my arguments in some 
detail here.  Although I know very little about IBM PCs, from what I've 
read and heard I think that many of my arguments apply to the PC world as 
well.

First I should briefly review how the two kinds of mail programs work for 
people who might not be aware of the differences.

Both the better commercial mail programs and the better POP client mail 
programs are fully featured mail programs with all of the customary 
features: address books, distribution lists, mail folders, replying to and 
forwarding mail, carbon and blind carbon copies, printing and saving 
messages, mail logs, attached files, notification of new mail, and so on.  
In both cases, the user reads and writes mail directly on his workstation 
using familiar tools.  The user does not have to log on to a UNIX host or 
any other system to deal with his mail.  This is the primary benefit of 
these mail systems, especially for people who do not know or want to learn 
UNIX or any other timesharing system.  Even PC and Mac users who are 
experts on UNIX, when given reasonable alternatives, usually prefer to 
deal with mail and other Internet services directly on their PC or Mac 
desktop.

QuickMail, Microsoft Mail, ccMail, InBox and other similar commercial 
local-area mail programs work on Macs or PCs that have been connected 
together into a local-area network.  One of the Macs or PCs on the network 
acts as a mail server and runs special server software.  In some cases a 
dedicated Mac or PC is required for the server, while in other cases a 
user Mac or PC can be used.  User's mailboxes actually reside on the 
server, but the client software on each Mac or PC presents the illusion 
that mail is being delivered directly to the user's personal workstation.  
In many cases (but not all), additional commercial software can be 
installed on the server to connect the mail system to the Internet.  These 
are called "mail gateways."  For example, here at NU we use two copies of 
StarNine's Mail*Link QM/Internet gateway (also known as GatorMail-Q) to 
serve ten different workgroups on campus using seven different QuickMail 
servers.  At the McCormick Shool of Engineering Dean's office they are 
currently using a similar ccMail/Internet gateway on their Novell PC 
network.

Eudora, TechMail, POPMail, and other similar "POP clients" present the 
same illusion to the user, but in this case the user's mailbox actually 
resides on a UNIX host on the IP Internet.  The UNIX host must be running 
a special "SMTP" server (simple mail transfer protocol) to handle outgoing 
Internet mail, and a special "POP" server (post office protocol) to handle 
incoming Internet mail.  UNIX systems come with SMTP servers as part of 
the standard system, while the POP server must be installed specially.  
The POP servers are very small and simple programs which are very easy to 
install.  At NU we have serveral POP servers installed on several 
different UNIX boxes, and several departments use POP clients.

In both cases, for Internet mail to work, the local-area network must be 
connected to the IP Internet.  For LocalTalk Mac networks this means using 
an AppleTalk/IP gateway like a Shiva FastPath or Cayman GatorBox.  For 
EtherTalk Mac networks a protocol gateway is not required as long as the 
Ethernet is also an IP network connected to the Internet.  

(Dial-up connections are sometimes possible, and dial-up access to 
Internet mail and other services is a major hot issue, but I'm 
intentionally ignoring this today as being beyond the scope of these 
notes.  Eudora has a dial-up feature which is supposed to work with Cisco 
terminal servers like our "Elvex" server at NU, but I haven't worked with 
this feature yet.  It requires special software from Apple which we don't 
have yet.  I hope to investigate this very soon, next week I hope, and 
I'll report on the results then.)

For the commercial local-area programs, the server workstation must be 
capable of communicating with the IP Internet via the TCP/IP protocols.  
For the POP clients, each personal workstation must be capable of 
communicating via TCP/IP.

The commercial local-area mail programs work wonderfully in a small 
homogenous workgroup where the primary use of electronic mail is to 
communicate with coworkers within the workgroup.  The programs were 
designed for this purpose, and they serve that purpose very well.  There's 
no doubt that the commercial programs are nicer than the POP clients if 
that's all that you want to do.  In the Mac world, the commercial user 
interfaces are often designed with generous use of icons and other 
shortcuts to accomplish simple goals, while the POP clients typically rely 
more heavily on the use of menu commands and command-key equivalents.  
Novices usually find the commercial programs to be a bit friendlier and 
easier to learn, although the POP clients are not difficult at all, and 
the very best POP clients like Eudora are very elegant and easy to learn 
and use.  Commercial programs also sometimes have extra frills.  For 
example, QuickMail has an online-conferencing facility, a primitive 
bulletin board, an "unsend" feature, and voice-mail capabilities (largely 
unused to date at NU because few Mac users have microphones).  These kinds 
of extras are usually not including in POP clients, primarily because the 
Internet mail system does not support the services (although several of 
them are available via other protocols and programs).

In major universities like Northwestern, however, even within a single 
workgroup (department or office), we often encounter very heterogeneous 
environments with mixtures of Macs, PCs, and/or UNIX workstations.  In 
addition, in most cases the mail users want to be able to easily 
communicate not only with their colleagues within the workgroup, but also 
with other people within their university and at other institutions around 
the world.  In fact, for researchers, communication with colleagues with 
similar research interests around the world is often a much more important 
and more frequent activity than is communication within the department.  
Even administrators, who spend the majority of their time communicating 
with each other, still need to communicate with other adminstrators on 
campus, many of whom will typically be in different workgroups and using 
different kinds of computers and mail systems.

The commercial mail programs have many drawbacks in this more complex 
heterogeneous and world-wide Internet environment.  

Many of the commercial mail programs do indeed have supposedly compatible 
versions for both the Mac and the PC, but in fact one of the versions is 
almost always greatly inferior to the other one.  Few of them have UNIX 
versions, and when they do, more often than not, the UNIX hackers just 
snear at them and refuse to use them, and rightly so, given the typical 
excellent UNIX mail facilities they're already using (like ELM.)

For example, QuickMail was originally designed for the Mac, and it works 
very well on Macs.  All of the major Mac magazine and network reviews 
consistently rate it as the best Mac mail program in head-to-head 
comparisons with its competitors, with Microsoft Mail usually coming in a 
not-too-distant second, and with ccMail and InBox always far behind.  CE 
Software recently released a PC version which is so poorly designed that 
it is horrible to use and very, very slow even when it doesn't crash, 
which it does often.  We have had very bad experiences with the PC version 
of QuickMail.

As another example, ccMail is one the most popular commercial local-area 
mail programs for the PC, and several departments at NU use it, but I've 
heard from usually reliable sources that the Mac version is very bad, much 
inferior to QuickMail.  The major Mac magazine and network reviewers agree 
with this assessment.

The commercial local-area mail programs were not designed as Internet mail 
programs.  In order to send a message to an Internet recipient, the user 
must send the message to the special Internet gateway.  In general, the 
gateway appears to the local-area mail system as a separate "mail center" 
or "post office" and it appears to the IP Internet as an SMTP peer host.  
The gateway converts messages back and forth between the formats used by 
the local-area system and the Internet.

This interposition of a gateway between the mail user and the Internet 
mail system invariably makes Internet mail a second-class facility on such 
systems.  Addressing mail to an Internet recipient is usually much more 
clumsy than addressing mail to a local recipient, and many Internet 
conventions and features common on UNIX-based mail systems are not 
available to the user.  

For example, with QuickMail, the user must wade through several special 
nested dialogs and type lots of irrelevent information in order to address 
an Internet message, although for frequent correspondents it is possible 
to add such an address to a private address book and subsequently use it 
as if the recipient were on the local system.  

To continue the example, with QuickMail, there's no way to automatically 
encode attached Mac files in the standard Internet "BinHex" format, 
there's no way to automatically append a signature to each outgoing 
message (a ".sig" file), there's no way to quote original message text in 
a reply or forwarded message using the ">" Internet convention, there's no 
way to easily correct and resend messages which have bounced because of a 
bad address, there's no way to import and export address lists in UNIX 
".alias" or any other format, there's no way to easily prepare "canned" 
messages to make it easier to distribute Mac software or other files via 
mail, and there's no way to easily perform mailbox-wide text searches.  

With Eudora, on the other hand, message addressing is extremely 
straightforward - you just type the usual user@domain address in the To, 
Cc, or Bcc field in the mail window.  In addition, all the features 
mentioned above are built-in to the program and are very easy to use or 
are even done for you automatically.  This is because Eudora was designed 
from the outset as an Internet mail program.

As an even worse example than QuickMail, the current version of ccMail 
doesn't even permit users to create their own address books - they all 
must share a common address book maintained by the server administrator!  
This is a very good example of a scheme which was designed for, and works 
adequately in, a small isolated workgroup, but is clearly unacceptable in 
the Internet environment.  I've also heard that a single improperly 
addressed incoming Internet message causes the ccMail gateway to stop 
working!  It's obvious that this system could never be used in a serious 
campus-wide production environment without major improvements.  (This 
information about ccMail is all second-hand and may be inaccurate.)

The commercial gateway packages have only recently appeared on the market, 
and in some cases they aren't even available yet.  None of them are really 
mature or robust products.  They contain many errors and design flaws and 
require constant monitoring and attention by network administrators.  
Internet mail, POP servers, and POP clients, on the other hand, are much 
more mature and robust.  This is largely because they are much simpler 
systems which involve far fewer software and hardware components between 
the user and the Internet.

For example, we have a number of problems with our campus QuickMail system 
which require constant attention.  Servers sometimes crash.  Servers 
sometimes mysteriously stop sending each other messages (the Store&Forward 
mailcenter backs up).  The QM/Internet gateway software sometimes stops 
sending outgoing Internet mail for no apparent reason (we suspect a MacTCP 
domain name resolver problem).  If a server goes down or becomes 
unreachable and the gateway server is subsequently restarted (usually for 
one of the reasons above) before the other server becomes reachable again, 
all incoming Internet mail destined for the unreachable server is 
immediately bounced back to the sender rather than being kept in the 
Store&Forward mailcenter as usual.  As more and more servers are serviced 
by our primary central gateway machine, this becomes more and more of a 
problem, since the probability that at least one of them is unreachable 
increases.  When the network becomes busy we sometimes experience problems 
connecting to the server from a client workstation, especially if there's 
an intervening AppleTalk router, and connections sometimes die 
unexpectedly.  Adjusting the QM timeout delay parameters hasn't helped 
much.  This is just a partial list of problems we've encountered.  The 
system works more than well enough so that it is usable, and many people 
do use it and rely on it, and according to the network and trade press 
reviews this is actually one of the best systems of its kind on the 
market, but it is still very delicate and requires constant monitoring and 
special attention at least several times per week.  I have heard similar 
reports from other users of QuickMail and other major commercial systems 
with Internet gateways.

Academics need to be able to access their mail from many different places 
- at the office, at home, from other universities, from conferences, etc. 
This is very easy with the POP clients, because the user's mailbox resides 
on an Internet host.  The host is reachable from anywhere on the Internet. 
 If the user has access to a networked Mac or PC at the remote location, 
he can even take a copy of his POP client software with him and use it 
from half-way around the world!  If necessary, he can also telnet to the 
UNIX host and use the UNIX mail programs.

Accessing the commercial local-area mail systems from remote locations is 
often impossible.  If it is possible, it's often clumsy.  For example, we 
do have a modem connected to our ACNS QuickMail server, but it can only be 
used by ACNS staff and only one person can use it at a time.  The remote 
interface for access from both Macs and non-Macs is not nearly as nice as 
QuickMail itself.  It's impossible to Telnet into QuickMail to read your 
mail.

Internet mail users are also accustomed to features such as automatically 
forwarding mail from one account to another and sending back automatic 
"vacation" replies when they're out of town.  Most commercial local-area 
mail systems don't support these features, although sometimes these 
features are available via separate software products.  For example, in 
the case of QuickMail, there's a product from Information Electronics 
called "QM Concierge" which will do this, but it costs an extra $200 per 
server, and it has problems with things like replies to distribution list 
messages, etc.  With POP clients, on the other hand, these features are 
automatically available as part of the underlying UNIX mail system.  For 
example, although Eudora does not directly support these features (maybe 
it will some day, but it doesn't now), Eudora users can still access them 
by logging on to the UNIX host and using the UNIX facilities.  For 
example, a Eudora user can log on to the UNIX host and create a ".forward" 
file to have his mail forwarded to some other address.

With the commercial systems, each separate workgroup normally has it's own 
mail server machine.  Usually it's the department's responsibility to 
purchase the necessary hardware resources and monitor and maintain the 
server.  With POP clients, a centrally funded, monitored, and maintained 
UNIX host can be used as the server.  For example, at NU we use our SUN 
Sparc 475 server "casbah" as a central POP server.  Any university 
student, staff member, or faculty member can get a free mail account on 
casbah.  Some departments with existing UNIX boxes choose to run their own 
POP servers instead, but they don't have to.

At NU we have some departments with only a few user Macs and no spare Mac 
which can be used as a gateway machine.  These Macs are on IP Ethernets 
which don't have AppleTalk connectivity to the rest of the campus (no 
FastPath or GatorBox), so they can't use our central gateway machine.  
Using QuickMail in these situations is impossible without spending lots of 
money, but using Eudora presents no problems and costs nothing.  
Industrial Engineering and Management Science and Neurobiology and 
Physiology are two examples of departments where we have used Eudora for 
this reason.

POP clients are also more flexible than commercial local-area mail 
programs.  They are much more easily tailored to specific needs.  For 
example, in one department there is a person who wants his coworkers 
within the department to be able to send him electronic mail directly, but 
he wants all mail from outside the department to go automatically to his 
assistant.  This is not possible with QuickMail, but with Eudora it would 
be quite easy to write a special custom "mail filter" on the UNIX host 
which would do just what he wants.

The commercial mail programs are just that - commercial, and that means 
they cost real money.  Some of them are quite expensive, while others are 
more reasonable.  For example, QuickMail, one of the more reasonable ones, 
costs about $30 per user, and we got a very good deal on our unrestricted 
site license for the QM/Internet gateway (we got lucky and bought it quite 
a long time ago directly from StarNine before they made a deal with Cayman 
to market it as GatorMail-Q - it would cost much, much more today from 
Cayman).  POP servers and POP clients, on the other hand, are almost 
always free (although there are commercial ones for the Mac, I'm not 
familiar with any of them).

The better POP clients come with good machine-readable user documentation. 
For example, for Eudora a technical writer has prepared both an excellent 
short tutorial document and a complete reference manual.  The commercial 
mail programs come with even fancier printed manuals, but they aren't 
machine readable, and in some cases you have to pay extra for additional 
user copies.  With QuickMail, for example, we are making do with only one 
copy of the user manual per department, and we have only one copy of the 
administrator's manual for the whole University!  With Eudora each user 
can have his own manual, and there's no need for an administrator's manual 
since there's no administrator.

QuickMail is licensed software.  We have been buying copies directly from 
CE Software in batches of 100.  We charge departments by the copy to 
recover our licensing costs.  Departments have to come to us to get copies 
because we are not permitted to make it available for distribution on a 
file server.  We are supposed to keep careful track of how many copies 
have been installed, but in practice this has proved to be impossible, and 
we actually only have a rough estimate of this number.  All of this 
involves lots of record keeping, paperwork, and walking around campus.  
With Eudora we just put a copy on our Plato file server along with the 
manuals and let people take copies themselves.  No charges, no paperwork, 
no wasted time, and no fuss.

When a new department wants to get QuickMail, we have to meet with them to 
discusss what machine they want to use as the server and we have to help 
them install the server software.  When updated versions of the software 
become available, they have to be laboriously redistributed and 
reinstalled in each department all over again.  With Eudora, departments 
don't need to set up a server - each user just gets a copy of the 
workstation software and manuals from Plato and installs and begins using 
it himself.  New versions are distributed the same way.  It's much less 
bother and effort for everybody concerned.

You might be surprised to learn that the better free POP software is often 
much better supported than is the commercial software.  Even though 
Northwestern has very close special relationships with both CE Software 
and StarNine, and we have been beta testers of both their products, we 
still have to wait many months in some cases and forever in most cases 
before errors are fixed and other concerns are addressed.  With Eudora, on 
the other hand, I have actually sent email complaints to the author, Steve 
Dorner, and received fixed versions within a few hours!  This is my best 
experience, of course, and your mileage may vary, and Steve has announced 
that he's moving on to other projects now, but it's still remarkable, and 
completely unheard of in the commercial world.

Source code is available for many of the POP clients (including Eudora) 
and all of the POP servers, but it's never available for the commercial 
products.

Until recently we had no central public UNIX service at Northwestern, and 
we were therefore unable to provide POP service to the general university 
community.  POP clients were only used internally at ACNS and in a few 
other departments with their own UNIX machines, most notably at the 
Institute for Learning Sciences.  Now that we have casbah we can provide 
this service to the general university community.

This lack of a public UNIX service is one of the reasons that we invested 
so heavily in QuickMail in the past.  This reason for using and promoting 
QuickMail no longer exists.  I do not propose that we abandon our current 
QuickMail users or discontinue support or availability of the product, but 
I do propose that we encourage the use of Eudora in the future and that we 
discourage the use of QuickMail.  Due to my ignorance, I am not prepared 
to make the same strong statement with regard to PCs, but I suggest that a 
similar policy deserves careful and fair consideration.

Eudora is a mature, reliable, efficient, well-designed program.  As is 
often the case, the quality of this program is not only just as good as 
the quality of the commercial alternatives, it is in fact better.  It 
infrequently crashes on my Mac, but both Steve and I suspect that the 
cause is an error in MacTCP, not Eudora.  It is certainly much, much more 
robust overall than the QuickMail system.

Again, I am quite ignorant in the MS-DOS world, but I know that there are 
a variety of PC POP clients available.  Bill Kath of Applied Math is a PC 
expert and he has long had an interest in POP clients.  He tells me that 
the newest release of the University of Minnesota's POPMail server and 
client system for MS-DOS is quite nice, and that Rob Kurtz of Industrial 
Engineering and Management Science has installed it in that department and 
they are making successful use of it.  I feel that investigating PC POP 
clients within our ACNS networking group and supporting and promoting 
their use on campus like I do with Eudora for the Mac should be one of our 
highest priorities.

Mail systems are notoriously finicky and labor-intensive.  Nobody installs 
an electronic mail system and just forgets about it and lets it run on its 
own.  They always have problems and they need lots of baby-sitting.  I 
spend a great deal of my time solving problems with our campus QuickMail 
system, and I know that my UNIX counterparts in our networking group also 
spend a large portion of their time solving various mail problems on their 
UNIX systems.  One major advantage of POP clients for network managers 
like me is that they use the existing UNIX mail infrastructure, and thus 
there's only one large mail mess to maintain rather than two (or three or 
four if, as is often the case, there are several mail systems from 
different vendors on campus).  Given that we are in the typical situation 
where our networking group is very overworked and understaffed, reducing 
the workload for our group is a major consideration.

In summary, I have come to the conclusion that commercial local-area mail 
systems are inferior to POP clients in environments at large universities 
like Northwestern.  For heterogeneous environments and for significant use 
of Internet mail, POP clients are clearly superior.  The only major 
obstacles are that you do need a campus IP internet in place, and you do 
need significant public UNIX resources.  We are fortunate enough to have 
these facilities at Northwestern.

As always, I not only welcome but heartily encourage your comments, either 
via email or USENET postings, especially if you disagree with me.  I think 
it would be great fun to debate this issue in public, and less fun but 
still fun if you'd prefer to do it in private.  Bringing the many services 
of the Internet to the personal computer desktop so that people who aren't 
UNIX hackers can benefit from them is one of my current passions.  It's an 
important issue, and we need to figure out the "right" way to do it.

A disclaimer is certainly necessary:  These are my personal opinions, and 
they do not necessarily reflect the policy or opinions of ACNS management.

John Norstad
Academic Computing and Network Services
Northwestern University
j-norstad@northwestern.edu

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