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 contractors." "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 messages. "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 occasion. -- 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: /c=us/a=mci/su=strom/gi=david/dda=id=3193660 "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 documents? 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 front." 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.