Understanding the ins and outs of e-mail

March 10, 1995

By Mike Wooldridge, MAWooldridge@LBL.gov

If the measure of a hi-tech product's success is the amount of training needed to use it, electronic mail does quite well. Today's mail systems with graphical user interfaces allow even computer novices to send and receive messages, usually with a few mouse clicks.

But behind the user friendliness lies a great deal of complexity. LBL's e-mail network in some ways resembles an electronic Tower of Babel, with a variety of computer systems paired with several types of e-mail software, each with its own way of communicating.

E-mail traffic at the Lab averages about 50,000 messages a day, says ICSD's William Jaquith, LBL's Electronic Postmaster. The mail comes primarily from four systems: QuickMail for Mac users, cc:Mail for PC users, and separate mail systems for UNIX and VMS users.

The systems represent different generations of e-mail. UNIX and VMS have been sending and receiving mail since the mid-1970s, when the Lab was one of a few dozen sites on the Internet and e-mail was mainly used by computer scientists.

The newcomers are QuickMail and cc:Mail, window-based products that have been widely used only in the past five years. "It's the graphical interfaces in systems like QuickMail and cc:Mail that have really brought electronic mail to everyone," Jaquith says.

Speaking the same language

Sending messages within a single e-mail system is relatively straightforward. Like spokes on a wheel, users on a given system are linked via central mail servers that route messages between users quickly and directly. It's when sending mail from one system to another that things get complicated.

The main way the Lab keeps the communication channels open is with a common language, or more precisely, a standard set of mail protocols that different systems can understand. At LBL, as at most large institutions, the common ground is SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol).

SMTP was developed 25 years ago for mail transfer over the Internet, where it is still used. "The Internet's success has made SMTP the logical electronic mail `backbone' for institutions with different systems," says Bob Fink of ICSD's Communications and Networking Department.

This makes communication in some ways easier for the UNIX systems at the Lab, since they use SMTP to begin with. QuickMail, cc:Mail, and VMS, however, have their own separate mail protocols, and must translate their messages to SMTP to communicate with other mail platforms.


The translators are known as gateways. The Lab's QuickMail system, for instance, has six "macmail" gateways that transfer QuickMail messages between it and other platforms. VMS and cc:Mail have similar gateways.

Gateways work in a "store and forward" fashion, transmitting e-mail messages in cycles. This allows message transfer to be flexible. If a piece of mail cannot be delivered--because the destination computer is down, for example--it can be held at the gateway and retried later. Typically, if a message can't be delivered after three days, it is returned to the sender along with an explanation.

The central link between electronic mail at LBL and the outside world is a gateway known as "LBL.gov" which handles Lab e-mail to and from the Internet. Messages can travel via LBL.gov to addresses at any of the thousands of other Internet sites worldwide--educational institutions such as UC Berkeley (berkeley.edu), research institutions such as CERN (cern.ch), and commercial sites such as Apple Computer (apple.com).

Electronic Post Office

Gateways know where to direct e-mail on-site because of a registry known as the LBL Electronic Post Office. Each user registered at the EPO has an alias consisting of a first and middle initial, and last name. The alias is indexed with the e-mail address specific to a particular system where the user prefers to receive mail. Jaquith, for instance, has the alias "WDJaquith" linked to the address on his VMS account (jake@csa.LBL.gov).

The EPO simplifies e-mail transfer on the Hill by rerouting mail when an employee's e-mail address changes. Instead of notifying correspondents of a new address, users can simply change their entry in the EPO.

The EPO also serves as a resource standard. QuickMail and cc:Mail look up e-mail addresses using the information at the EPO. EPO addresses are also listed in the LBL phone book and in the x.500 electronic staff database.

Handling enclosures

Thanks to the network of gateways and servers, LBL e-mail generally flows without a hitch, with one exception--enclosures. Enclosures are non-text or "binary" files, such as graphics, spreadsheets, and formatted documents, that users can attach to their e-mail messages.

As with regular message transfer, the variety of computer systems on the Hill is what makes enclosures a challenge. "It is similar to the problems you have moving a file on a floppy disk from a Mac to a PC," says Mark Rosenberg of ICSD's Central Microcomputer Support group. "You are always going to be stuck with some incompatibilities."

QuickMail and cc:Mail can send enclosures to one another quite reliably. ICSD has configured cc:Mail and QuickMail gateways so that enclosures are encoded in the same "language," a format known as AppleSingle-UUENCODE.

However, the sticking point often comes not because of the e-mail system, but because of the software used. Enclosed files are useless if a person doesn't have an application that can read or translate them.

Making enclosure transfer flawless on-site may only be possible with a single e-mail system that can work on the variety of computers on the Hill. Such a system would make the e-mail network considerably less complicated, since it would need just a single translating gateway.

LBL may eventually find such a solution with groupware. Popular in private industry, groupware systems are integrated software packages with electronic mail, scheduling programs and other components that users can share over a network. Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise are examples of groupware packages. The LBL Electronic Workplace Process Improvement Team is currently exploring how the Lab can implement groupware on-site.

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