A way out of the maze

A way out of the maze – Technology Information

Simplify e-mail through IP-messaging appliances.

A significant percentage of enterprises typically purchase e-mail solutions and then “staff up” to maintain them permanently on site. However, what were state-of-the-art e-mail applications three years ago are now obsolete. Constant upkeep and client-side changes can affect the overall quality and predictability of service levels. Some companies standardize on a single source, hoping to circumvent the loss of end-user productivity arising from compatibility issues.


Unfortunately, procuring traditional e-mail solutions from even a single purchasing source remains administratively complex. Even if a company is buying the client-side and server-side e-mail application, server hardware, operating system (OS), and storage from a single source–all of which could be developed by different vendors–the question remains as to whether the products have been developed or tested for the specific implementation environment.

The resulting product limitations, configuration problems, and system administrator and user errors can contribute to an e-mail environment subject to significant downtime. Troubleshooting then requires application, OS, and hardware expertise to determine the appropriate fix, and at least four separate vendors may have to get involved to resolve the problem.


Compounding e-mail’s administrative complexity is the “postmaster resource gap,” the increasing gap between the exploding number of e-mail users, mailboxes, aliases, and data-storage requirements generated by e-mail usage and the system administration resources available to manage it all. Parallelling this gap, Internet e-mail is expanding into a class of productivity and collaboration (“groupware”) applications, like group calendaring and scheduling, threaded discussions, reference databases, workflow, and document management.

Evaluating new e-mail solutions requires consideration of the pros and cons of the potential administrative impact of integrating e-mail with groupware applications. Integrating these applications requires administrative time and cost to configure and maintain high uptime. Where integrated desktop applications are a more important consideration than the reliability of e-mail services and the total cost of ownership, an IBM Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange, or Novell GroupWise solution might be the best choice. Calendaring and scheduling can be handled in other ways, such as a Web-based intranet solution. Separating out e-mail as an independent service can minimize the cost of maintenance and maximize uptime. Special needs can be met with groupware services; however, the organization at large can be better served by hosting e-mail separately and optimizing that environment to ensure reliable, secure, simple, and scalable service.

Workflow and document management applications frequently require strong version control and repository capabilities to share documents and files. A company requiring advanced capabilities could be staffed to support and maintain a groupware solution. Another approach is to maintain mission-critical centralized e-mail services separately from the other applications. Independent of any other software or hardware components which ensure its effectiveness, this separation furnishes higher reliability and lowers costs of installation, maintenance, and administration. The ability to implement the IMAP (Internet messaging access protocol) also can serve the basic document-sharing needs of many organizations without compromising reliability or security.


There are two choices to consider when looking at housing email in a dedicated environment: (1) a general-purpose Unix or Windows NT or (2) an e-mail appliance server environment to address e-mail scalability requirements as the company grows. There are several disadvantages to the first approach:

?? Cost – Over the life cycle of a typical e-mail architecture, an organization can spend as much to support, maintain, and scale the service as to initially deploy the system. A recent study conducted by Creative Networks, Inc. (Palo Alto, Calif.) found that e-mail systems built upon standard Internet protocols cost $1,370 per user per year, while proprietary client-server systems rose to $3,355 per user per year.

?? Management – As the number of users and the volume of traffic increases, e-mail scalability problems can arise, getting worse as the number of e-mail systems increases. For example, the mail-routing function (including mailing list and alias management) must be distributed across all the systems. Constantly changing mailing lists, local delivery of e-mail messages, and user account information must also be replicated across multiple systems.

?? Security – Telnet access to the server and the potential to access other people’s mailboxes using “superuser” or “shell” privileges, can be cause for concern and may require added safety measures through third-party software products in order to eliminate security loopholes in the operating system. This is true for organizations needing a high degree of protection for e-mail communication.


The second choice to consider is e-mail appliances designed from the ground up for e-mail sending and receiving (via SMTP) and storage and access (via POP and IMAP). This approach delivers the following benefits:

?? Reliability – e-mail appliances focus on a limited number of tasks, so local delivery and client-access servers are very robust. Because the system is occupied with fewer tasks and processes, it is more reliable, returning to service substantially quicker after shutdown than multipurpose or general-purpose servers.

?? Performance – Because the hardware, OS, and application are developed in concert with one another, e-mail appliances are highly optimized to perform their single purpose, resulting in higher performance. In addition, the application software can be “pre-tuned,” sparing customers the cost of doing system tuning.

?? Simplicity – Part of integrating the hardware, OS, and application together makes the appliance seamless, reducing the steps required for the administrator to deploy or manage the appliance. A single on switch can power up the system, boot the operating system, and run the application services–all without user intervention.

?? Cost – Some portion of ongoing costs can be attributed to hardware and software upgrades and new expenditures; the majority of recurring costs stem from administrative overhead. Performance improvements can reduce the need for new capital expenditures, but improved reliability, along with easy-to-use administrator interfaces, can drive down administrative costs significantly.


More enterprises and service providers are turning to IP-based messaging appliances, in favor of general purpose servers, to handle Internet e-mail and future messaging requirements. Cisco Systems’ engineering divisions are standardizing Mirapoint, Inc.’s M1000 IP messaging appliances to optimize e-mail performance, streamline system administration, and simplify ongoing deployment of the company’s worldwide e-mail system. Ralph Loura, director of engineering computing services for the company, says, “In a fast-growth environment, new infrastructure services must be quickly deployed. We don’t have the time to go back to the whiteboard and create a new architecture for something as vital, yet fundamental, as e-mail each time we open a new building.”

One of the country’s first regional Internet business data-services providers, FASTNET Corp., selected the M1000 as the core message access, store, and forward solution for its evolving unified-messaging infrastructure. The outsourced co-location e-mail services enable customers to own and administer dedicated messaging appliances co-located at FASTNET Corp.’s data center. There, the M1000 can be remotely and securely managed and backed up over the Internet on shared systems.

“Aggregating the technical details of e-mail into an easy-to-use messaging appliance is one of the strengths of the new system,” says David K. Van Allen, FASTNET’s CEO. “We now have an appliance-based system that is ultra-reliable and centers around industry standards, which is important because it doesn’t lock us into a proprietary architecture.”


The tremendous popularity of e-mail has generated a host of solution approaches–from proprietary, client-server LAN-based messaging products, to dedicated standards-based, Internet e-mail solutions. When evaluating the options, it’s important to identify and carefully consider all of the factors that will affect the success of a new e-mail solution. Factors such as security, functionality, performance, reliability, ease of administration and use, standards-based interoperability, scalability, initial and on-going costs, and integration with groupware applications should all be carefully weighed against the real business needs of the organization.

Cheena Srinivasan, vice president of marketing at Mirapoint, Inc., observes: “E-mail has emerged as one of the most important mission-critical, yet needlessly complex, applications for corporate environments. Significant resources are invested to ensure functional, secure, and on-line e-mail systems. In an effort to focus on value-added services rather than whether e-mail systems are working properly, `simplify e-mail!’ has become an industry rallying cry of technical support organizations.”

Circle 266 for more information from Mirapoint, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Nelson Publishing

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