David Strom

Email to the World

By David Strom

Is your business ready to travel on the information superhighway? We aren't talking

about receiving hundreds of TV channels. Instead, do you find the notion of electronically

communicating with your electronic keiretsu appealing? 

If your sales people already have electronic mail and can communicate with each other,

getting them connected to their customers and suppliers can improve response time on filling

orders and extending their reach. If your CEO is one of those "permanently mobile

executives" profiled in last April's issue, getting him or her connected electronically to the

battery of lawyers, finance-types, and other external supply lines can make or break deals.

And for some engineering and construction projects such as Boeing's latest 777 jumbo jet,

having electronic cross-company ties are essential to getting the job done.  

It won't be easy.  Such email links to the outside world, called gateways in computer

parlance, could become expensive both in terms of actual dollars and in staff time involved.

These connections may also be risky from a standpoint of data security; since you are

allowing non-employees access to your company. Finally, figuring out which products to use

and how to implement them will take some time and careful planning. 

With the right kinds of support and products, your corporation can travel at freeway speeds.

Take the example of Southern California Edison, one of the nation's largest electric utilities.

They have over 13,000 email users, communicating primarily with two different email

gateways to the outside world. "Moving email over our gateways is as much a part of normal

communications as using the phone," says Mike Mushet, a senior analyst for the utility who

has extensive experience in designing their email network. (Rosemead, Cal. [(818) .302.5887)]

Edison gets about 100 messages daily from the outside, mostly from its suppliers. 

Where to start? Here is our plan of attack:

1. First off, figure out what your needs are. With whom outside of your corporation do you

have to communicate to get work done? What information do these customers or suppliers or

team members need? And, can you make a business case for better connections, such as the

price of more timely information, lower inventory, reduced telephone charges, reduced travel

time, or increased customer satisfaction? 

There are three principle gateway users: sales and executives that need to be closely linked to

their customers, multi-company project teams that want to get off the paper habit, and for

support information from computer companies themselves.

Take computer trade newspaper Infoworld as an example. Their sales staff uses email

gateways to get advertising contracts and close deals. "They rely heavily on email gateways

to remain competitive," says Debbie Lewis, who ran the paper's network for a year and a half

and now works as a senior support engineer for Fair Isaac, Inc., an engineering firm in San

Raphael, Calif. (415 491-7020). For these salespeople, "Email gateways are the quickest,

easiest, and most inexpensive way to transfer files back and forth between two locations,"

says Lewis. 

InfoWorld's editorial staff uses these gateways as well to communicate with readers and

writers: all of InfoWorld's editors and writers are available electronically. Infoworld gets over

1,000 messages a day moving through its various email gateways, including links to the

Internet, MCI Mail  (Arlington, Va. 800 333 1000), Novell's Message Handling System

(Provo, Utah 801 429 7000), and General Electric's Quikcomm (Rockville, Md. 301 340

6510). The publishing firm also has over 350 email users on Lotus' cc:Mail and Notes

(Cambridge, Mass. 617 577 8500)  and Microsoft's Mail for Macintosh. (Redmond, Wash.

206 882 8080)

"Without email to the outside world, we would not be competitive," says Steve York, a senior

manager with Hughes Computing Systems, (Long Beach, CA (310) 513-3469). York has

guided Hughes Aircraft's huge electronic mail network of close to thirty thousand internal

users for several years. Hughes has three gateways that send over 5,000 messages daily, and

receive several thousand messages daily as well. "Our outside population is enormous, many

thousands all over the globe, including engineers and managers from other defense


"Primarily, we communicate to obtain essential technical information from a variety of

vendors that we do business with. We are able to download software, transact certain business

agreements where people have "virtual offices" and obtain bulletins and technical briefs," said

Michael C. Rankin, who is a senior network designer at Home Savings Of America,

(Irwindale CA (818 814-7252). The bank has several hundred emailboxes and two gateways

to MHS and the Internet from its email users, with daily traffic of approximately 250


"In this day where vendors deem it necessary to charge extra for phone support, economically

it makes sense to use email to communicate with them, since they usually don't charge for

these messages. We communicate directly with Microsoft support technicians via email, for

example." says Rankin. 

Some questions to ask include: Do you often work with other companies on particular

projects? Are there suppliers that you frequently send certain data to, or they to you? Does

your CEO or other top management waste time on playing phone tag with particular lawyers,

accountants, or other high-priced support talent? Do you find yourself faxing workers in

far-away places because their workday doesn't coincide with yours? If so, then gateways will

help improve productivity.

2. What email software do you have, and what does the other guy have? 

The best way to make a decision on which gateway to purchase is to take a consensus among

the people that you need to connect to: What do they use, and can you get there from here? 

Most LAN-based electronic mail software have a confusing array of options to connect them

to the outside world. Products such as Microsoft's Mail for PC Networks, Lotus' cc:Mail, and

Word Perfect's Office (Orem, Utah, (801) 228-5037), the three most popular LAN-based

email packages, can be set up in a variety of ways to outside mail services such as those

provided by Compuserve (Columbus, Ohio 800 848 8199) and MCI Mail.  Sorting through

these options, and understanding what equipment is needed to implement them and what are

the staffing requirements to maintain them, is not easy.

The most popular ways to connect dissimilar email systems include the Internet (which while

isn't strictly an email system does connect over 20 million users around the world), MCI

Mail, and the Message Handling System that runs mostly on Novell networks. 

"When we assemble project teams with other companies, Internet is the hands-down choice

for communicating. I can point to dozens of programs at Hughes that use Internet for E-mail

and file sharing among the teams. Our biggest customer is the government and Internet is

their defacto choice. It is often written into government contracts that we communicate with

them via Internet." says York.

Chances are, you should be able to find some common ground if you choose one of these

three systems. There are various ways to connect up:

-- Internet gateways. If you have an existing LAN-based email system, you will need at least

two computers to connect your email to the outside Internet: a DOS computer running the

Simple Mail Transport Protocols (Lotus, Microsoft, and Word Perfect each have extra-cost

options for their email systems that run less than $1000 for the software) and another

computer that is connected to the Internet somehow, typically a Unix workstation with a

modem. Both machines need to be on the same LAN. Don't have any Unix expertise in-house

and don't want to get started now? Or consider yourself too small a business to ever have any

Unix expertise? Then pick another option. 

Using the Internet has both pros and cons: It has the largest population and the widest reach

around the globe, so you are most likely to find a common connection here. If your business

or customers are engineering, academic, government, or computing, this is probably the best

medium to communicate.

The Internet has the widest variety of software support for its gateways, including many

LAN-based email systems. And once you pay for actual access, the on-ramp to the highway,

(typically several hundred dollars a month) most messages are free: so overall costs are low.

However, the downside is a lack of overall security: it is very easy for messages to be read

by parties other than the intended recipients. And you eliminate overall control or

accountability when intermediate links go south: since the Internet is more a loose-knit

federation rather than a single company, you have to put up with service interruptions on


-- MCI Mail gateways. A second method for connecting two corporate email systems is to use

MCI Mail as an intermediary. This service is also international in scope and has two different

types of users: individuals that have their own terminal or modem-equipped PC with

telecommunications software and corporations which can connect their entire LAN-based

email populations. Although MCI Mail's individual user base is less than half a million, it has

quite the pedigree among many high technology companies. For example, all of Borland's

employees have individual MCI Mail accounts, and most of the computer trade press also

have accounts or gateways to the system. Typical monthly charges are less than $100 for

sending about 200 messages monthly.

MCI is just one of these types of commercial electronic service providers: AT&T offers their

own service called Easylink (Parsippany, NJ 800 242 6005), and Sprint (Westwood, Kan. 800

877 7746), General Electric 's Quickcomm and Apple (Cupertino, Calif. 408 996 1010) are

others that have their own systems. There are all similar in that they have both individual

users and LAN connections for corporations. Most of these systems have reasonable monthly

charges for their corporate gateways (the range is $100 to $1000), and like the ordinary postal

system, only senders are billed for their messages. Pick these connections if you are involved

in finance and retail businesses and need the global reach.

Connecting to MCI Mail (and any of the other service providers) is relatively simple: it just

requires extra software and a DOS or OS/2 computer with a modem to dial the service. 

Messages wait for transfer until the gateway completes the call. Typically, the gateways can

be set to call when mail is waiting to be sent and also call periodically to check for received

mail as well, with the time period adjusted by the network administrator. Most set these

periodic call-ins at every 15 minutes during the work day: since the calls are typically to

toll-free numbers, there is no harm in checking frequently. Different software is required for

each service provider, meaning that the MCI gateway software will only communicate with

MCI, and other products are required to work with GE or Sprint's mail network. 

Which service is the right one for you? Again, consider with whom you have to

communicate. You should ask your intended correspondents which service they use. If you

have primarily Macintoshes in your organization or if you communicate with corporations that

have mostly Macs, chances are high that you should consider the Apple electronic services.

Apple is presently moving many of its customers over to a new system called E-World from

the older Applelink.

-- MHS. A third option is to use Novell's MHS protocols as the middle ground. This option is

attractive for many smaller businesses that don't have mainframes and never will, or for those

businesses that aren't as concerned with reaching customers beyond North America. Many

LAN-based email products also support this option, including MS Mail and cc:Mail, along

with products from DaVinci Systems Corp. (Raleigh, NC 919 881 4320), Beyond, Inc.

(Burlington, Mass. (617 229 0006), CE Software's Quickmail (Des Moines, Iowa,  515 221

1801) and others. Like other gateways, you need a dedicated PC with a modem to move mail

between networks. 

Compuserve also offers a global MHS hub, connecting to many (but not all) MHS post

offices around the world. You can register your own MHS mail server with their system, and

thereafter anyone who has access to Compuserve's email system (which also includes other

individual Compuserve accounts as well as users on MCI Mail and users reachable via the

Internet) can send you mail. 

The advantages of using Compuserve's MHS hub are that they maintain it and keep it

running.  For companies that do alot of international business, it could save money since

international telephone charges are avoided. The disadvantages are that they charge for each

call on top of the normal connect time charges that the gateway is talking to Compuserve. 

3. What about connecting other email systems within your own corporation? 

Sometimes, just getting everyone in your corporation connected can be a chore. Large

corporations often have more than one email system -- the inevitable fallout from

departmental purchases, corporate acquisitions and mergers, and just plain evolution of

technology. Hughes is one example of a larger company that is trying to reduce the number

of disparate systems down to four from nearly twice that number used several years ago.

Hughes has targeted the end of this year, "when we pull the plug on our mainframe

OfficeVision system and move them to LAN-based cc:Mail," says York. They also have

DEC's VMS mail and native email on a variety of Unix workstations.

If you have a mess of email, then consider finding some common ground in either MHS or

the Internet methods above. For example, Infoworld uses an MHS gateway to connect cc:Mail

to the Macintosh version of Microsoft Mail running on a Macintosh Server.

Larger corporations might want to consider mega-gateways from SoftSwitch, Inc. (Wayne,

PA, (215) 640-7448). While expensive (entry-level products start around $40,000 plus annual

maintenance fees on top of that), they are industrial-strength ways to move all sorts of email

around your corporation and options are available to connect to the outside world. 

What about X.400? You might have heard about X.400, the international standard for

connecting dissimilar email systems that is now supported by a variety of products and email

service providers, including the email divisions of Sprint, MCI, and AT&T. X..400 is

notorious for its hard-to-read addressing information. For example, my address on MCI Mail

is dstrom or 3193660. In X.400 parlance, it becomes the monster: 


"While we have a variety of email systems, we don't have any native X.400 users. Our X.400

connections are made through a SoftSwitch gateway to MCI Mail, and are used primarily to

connect to some of our non-government business partners such as Prudential," says York.

Our analysis shows that X.400 will require more support resources and more careful planning,

as not all X.400 products are alike and some don't work at all with others -- so much for the

standard. We suggest you steer clear of it for the time being, or follow Hughes' lead and use

a service provider if you absolutely have to have it.

4. How security-conscious are you?

"Be aware that data traveling over networks is highly vulnerable to eavesdropping," said

Lewis. Gateways are inherently less secure than not using them and connecting all users to a

single email system. The reason for this is that they eventually have to translate a message to

clear text to send to the other service, and in the process this text could be viewed by

someone who understands how the gateway operates or a technician who has to repair the

gateway. "If you are concerned about privacy, consider using an encryption utility to scramble

the message. Another method that works well is to use PKzip and compress the attachment

with a password. Then I call the recipient and verbally inform them what the password is,"

said Lewis. However, be aware that sometimes "compression and decompression utilities can

have some very interesting and sometimes fatal results on messages," says Rankin.

Another security issue is sending messages via the Internet itself. As we mentioned earlier, all

mail that passes over the Internet goes through many waystations on the information highway,

and at each stop could be seen by unintended eyes. Internet users caution against sending any

confidential data, credit card numbers, and other sensitive materials over email. If this is a

concern for you, you should consider some other route that will be more secure.

5. Do you have enough skills and staff to do the job?

Even major corporations such as Hughes and big email users such as the trade paper

Infoworld have lots of help to manage gateways. Infoworld and Southern California Edison

both have one full-time staff member apiece that is assigned to just keep the gateways up and

running. Hughes has two full timers while Home Savings has a part-time administrator to

handle its gateways. 

The biggest issue with supporting email gateways seems to be maintaining them and keeping

them running.  According to Lewis: "During my tenure at Infoworld, the cc:Mail link to

Internet gateway would freeze up several times a day and needed to be rebooted. Sometimes

it would freeze up late Friday night and remain frozen all weekend, creating a huge

bottleneck Monday morning.  Sometimes messages would bounce back to the originator

without any explanation as to why it was being rejected."

"To prevent a lot of cc:Mail / internet problems from occurring, I had to come in every

Saturday for 3-4 hours and run the RECLAIM utility on all the post-offices," said Lewis. This

utility compacts the mail database and improves gateway reliability. "There was no way to

automate this procedure as the gateways had to be physically shut down in order for the

process to work."

Hughes uses a combination of its own monitoring software and commercial products from

SoftSwitch and Automated Business Solutions [314 474 1089]. "All of this software checks

each gateway at least hourly to ensure they are operating. This is part of the overall corporate

network management group's responsibilities," said York.

If email becomes a mission-critical application in your organization, you might want to take

Steve York's advice. "In January, we have moved responsibility for maintaining our email

networks into the traditional mainframe operations environment. This includes change

management, disaster recovery, controlled access, formal service level agreements, etc. Don't

treat email as an ad hoc departmental solution but give it the same attention and respect that

any other critical application running on the mainframe would have."

Even without an actual mainframe, the important thing is to provide the proper support

environment for your internal and external email system. Either assign internal staff the

responsibility or find a third-party provider to maintain the system.

6. What about sending more than just messages, such as spreadsheets, graphics and formatted


While the effort and energy involved in connecting two email systems together is non-trivial,

it pales beside the amount of work needed to move more than simple messages such as

sending the contents of spreadsheets and formatted documents. In technical parlance, this

situation is referred to as sending attachments, since these files are attached to particular

email messages. "You must take into consideration that your mail packets are being stretched

and moved several different ways while being routed through somebody else's network," says

Rankin. "If you want to send attachments successfully, you'll need some careful planning up


There are all sorts of problems involved: many email systems don't properly support transfer

of large files, with each product having their own definition of what constitutes "large." For

example, MCI Mail imposes a 2 MB limit on files over gateways, and 3 MB limit on files

between two MCI users. These limits may seem large -- a typical 30 page document or even

a large spreadsheet takes up less than one tenth that size -- but not when you add in graphics

and audio elements.

Some Internet gateways will only transfer files smaller than 32 kilobytes (about 15 pages of

text), and lop off anything bigger: this spells trouble when it comes time to send your

spreadsheets. "Large attachments would cause the gateways to hang and often I would have to

manually reset the modem and have the user try again until successful," said Lewis. "There

was never a consistency with file size.  Problems were always unique, intermittent, and hard

to duplicate." She recommends only attaching a single file per message for the best results.

Internet email products use what is called uuencode/uudecode to convert attached files into

something that can be moved over most email systems. Some of the Internet gateways

automatically encode and decode attachments, but most do not: something that you will find

out the first time a user gets a message that looks like it has been through the bit blender.

"Uuencode/decode is not really a standard, it causes problems for some people," said York.

"We have found a number of "gotchas" that can foul things up. For example, some systems

have set the uudecode segment size to the default which is 64k. Because ours is larger,

everything for that message is lost. We have also found bugs in 4 or 5 different

implementations at various companies when our users complained of problems," said York. 

"Users seemed to be very successful sending and receiving messages with attached text files,

regardless of the size of the attachment. Sometimes, attached non-text files (such as graphics

and spreadsheets) would arrive but be corrupted," says Lewis. 

Another thing to watch out for when sending attached files has nothing to do with the actual

email products themselves:  "Sometimes, we get calls when a user cannot read attachments

due to version inconsistencies: someone sends a Word version 6 file to a user who is still on

Word version 5. The problem is almost always reported as a "mail problem" and our

reputation suffers. This appears, however, to be our cross to bear despite attempts to educate

the customer on the issues," said York.

To get around these problems, you might want to do what Southern California Edison did:

"We do not allow binary file transfers over our gateways. Period," says Mushet.

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David Strom David Strom Port Washington, NY 11050 USA US TEL: 1 (516) 944-3407