NASA Embraced Email Standards Early On

nasaIt came as no surprise last June when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided to embrace Internet mail standards as a means to improve communications between nine centers across the country. After all, thanks to a crazy constellation of proprietary E-mail packages, it was not uncommon for NASA messages to vanish into a black hole as employees tried to beam them from one center to another.

What was notable, however, were the mail brands NASA certified to fit its new Internet messaging model. One came squarely from the Internet for ITcamp–Qualcomm Inc.’s Eudora. But the other standard was clearly associated with what some call the proprietary side–Microsoft Corp.’s Exchange groupware/E-mail offering. NASA’s hybrid certification of mail products provides a perfect lesson managers currently befuddled over whether to adopt Internet E-mail, consider remote login systems, or remain true to the more traditional “proprietary” offerings from vendors such as Microsoft, Lotus Development Corp., Novell Inc. and others. Internet mail appears to hold the most promise for companies concerned with interoperability and ubiquitous access. Proprietary solutions, on the other hand, seem to offer more robust capabilities when it comes to directory, storage and backup services as well as security.

But companies may no longer have to sweat the choice, according to the experts, who predict the two worlds will come together over the next two years. “They are two trains moving toward each other with feature parity,” says J.F. Sullivan, senior product manager for messaging servers at Netscape Communications Corp., in Mountain View, Calif.

Ironically, the advent of the Internet’s World Wide Web interface could prove to be the great equalizer in the two styles of E-mail. Certainly, it has set off a features race among vendors from both camps to match each other’s functionality. In a move that symbolizes the convergence in the two technologies, Lotus is building a Web connection into Notes 4.5 via its Domino server (see related stories, below), and Microsoft is promising that Exchange 4.5 will allow users to access mail with a Web browser when it ships in the first quarter of 1997.

“The proprietary vendors are adding support for Internet standards as fast as they can,” says Dave Crocker, co-director of the Internet Mail Consortium, in Santa Cruz, Calif. “And Internet mail is not trying to become proprietary mail, but it’s trying to add features that make it more useful.”

Vendor vitriol

Nevertheless, IT managers still have plenty of vendor hype to sort through as they try to decide which mail products and services best suit their needs. In a bitter thrust at the traditional vendors, Netscape’s Sullivan asserts Internet mail vendors will reach the feature summit long before the traditional vendors do. “The other guys have to redo their plumbing,” he says, claiming that it will be much easier for Internet mail vendors to add features than vice versa.

Nonsense, parries Lotus Marketing Manager Ken Bisconti. “It’s been a lot easier for us to add protocols and interfaces to an already robust product than it is to build robust products from scratch.”

For now, each side still offers relative advantages over the other. Perhaps the biggest benefit of Internet mail is interoperability, provided by its support for SMTP, standardized by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force). Mail products built on SMTP can communicate easily–for instance, a message sent on Netscape’s mail product can easily find its way to another brand of Internet mail, such as Qualcomm’s Eudora.

Not so with traditional E-mail. Products such as Microsoft Mail and Lotus cc:Mail–and their groupware siblings Exchange and Notes–were not originally designed to support SMTP. Therefore, these traditional mail products have, at least until recently, required gateways to facilitate communications with other E-mail systems, which is not inherently reliable. “Gateways lose information–some are very good at it,” notes the Internet Mail Consortium’s Crocker.

Not to be outshouted, proprietary vendors are quick to describe the advantages of their systems over “open” Internet mail. Chief among these is the claim that traditional mail servers are far more robust than Internet products in providing superior mail delivery and storage capabilities, backup, directory services and security.

It was storage deficiencies that convinced Pacific Gas & Electric to select Microsoft’s Exchange over a number of Internet mail products, including those from Sun Microsystems Inc. and SCO, according to Ed Crowley, a manager in the information technology planning group at PG&E, in San Francisco. The utility giant made its choice last spring, following a two-year-plus evaluation of how to replace an aging Banyan Systems Inc. E-mail package serving some 22,000 users.

At the time, Internet mail vendors were offering only rudimentary message delivery and storage services supported by the IETF POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) standard. “With POP3, Internet mail’s huge disadvantage was the storage overhead burden,” recalls Crowley. “It behaves simply as a store-and-forward process, and each end user has to download huge megabyte files.”

By comparison, the Exchange server permits users to view their messages without downloading them, thereby saving disk space that would otherwise be required to store the same message potentially thousands of times, as in Internet mail products. Exchange’s central storage capabilities also cut down on network traffic and improve system administration. That, in turn, eases the all-important task of backup.

This fact is not lost on the Internet mail vendors, which are working feverishly to improve storage and delivery techniques. “Users are not very good at doing backup,” notes Crocker. “MIS does that sort of thing for a living.”

Many Internet mail vendors have announced plans to support an emerging predecessor to POP3, called IMAP4 (Internet Mail Access Protocol 4), which is expected to put Internet mail delivery and storage on a more equal footing with the proprietary products. Netscape has said that the mail program in its Communicator browser/groupware product will adhere to IMAP4 standards when Communicator ships in first-quarter 1997. According to Crocker, most Internet mail providers will upgrade to IMAP4 by the second quarter of 1997.

There are early indications that users have faith in IMAP4’s ability to address the storage and delivery issues. NASA, for instance, eventually plans to mandate that its mail servers support IMAP4 standards, says Randy Sparkman, a senior computer scientist with NASA technology support contractor Computer Sciences Corp., who is based at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Ala. Under the long-term contract, CSC provides information technology services to NASA.

NASA’s long-term plan does not preclude Microsoft’s Exchange from the mix because Microsoft has announced intentions to support IMAP4, notes Sparkman. Along with IMAP4, NASA included two Internet protocols in its edict: SMTP and MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension), which nails down a standard for attaching nontextual information such as graphics, audio or video to an E-mail message.

Both Microsoft and Lotus have recently added agents to their groupware products that convert messages to SMTP and MIME and circumvent the need to go through a gateway. Microsoft calls its agent IMC (Internet Mail Connector), and Lotus calls its MTA (Mail Transfer Agent).

“The rule at NASA is simple: People can use the Microsoft Exchange format inside their center, but once a message leaves the center, it has to be in the SMTP and MIME formats,” says Sparkman.

The capability of sending mail in a common format without using problematic gateways was a must for NASA, because it already was converting from dozens of legacy E-mail systems that did not talk well to each other. “At one point, NASA had 32 different E-mail platforms on a combination of mainframes, minicomputers and LANs,” recalls Sparkman. “You could generally send E-mail, but it was, many times, unreliable. And then there was the issue of attachments–you could seldom have predictable results.”

Worldwide mix

Before the fledgling era of Lotus MTAs and Microsoft IMCs, not all large organizations had faith in the promise of interoperability of traditional E-mail programs. For that reason alone, Schlumberger Ltd., the New York- and Paris-based oil exploration services company, standardized on Qualcomm’s Eudora mail system and an SMTP backbone for messaging across the world.

According to David Sims, a Houston-based technical manager of IT at Schlumberger, Lotus cc:Mail was unwieldy a couple of years ago on the SMTP network, so the company had to eliminate it from its worldwide E-mail mix. “The only way to use cc:Mail was to gateway every cc:Mail site to our SMTP mail backbone. It was an administrative nightmare,” he notes.

If Sims has a beef with the Eudora system, it’s a typical one voiced by Internet E-mail critics. Directory services–the process by which users can look up E-mail addresses–could be better, he says.

Even Internet E-mail zealot Crocker concedes this is an area in which traditional E-mail vendors still hold an edge. Today, it is difficult to look up addresses outside one’s own organization, a shortcoming that works against the global spirit of the Internet. Internet E-mail vendors are working to address this charge by standardizing on a directory process called LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol). But while dozens of vendors have announced support for LDAP, there are few available products. In addition, other Internet directory protocols are in the works.

Other criticisms of Internet mail–its lack of security and E-mail database links–also are being addressed, according to Gary Rowe, a principal with consultancy Rapport Communications, in Roswell, Ga. Netscape’s Communicator, for instance, augurs better database connectivity via groupware processes, Rowe says.

Given the two worlds are spiraling down the same path, users can soon look beyond the issue of choosing a mail system. “The concept of separate electronic mail clients will sort of dissolve, and the argument over whether to use this mail client or that will become irrelevant,” says CSC’s Sparkman.

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