Bogged in BigPond

Bogged in BigPond Kate Mackenzie and Chris Jenkins NOVEMBER 04, 2003

THE BigPond email difficulties hit Victorian company Hawthorn Travel hard. “We rely on a lot of our business to come in by email,” says travel agent Chris Hocking, who also looks after the company’s network.

“There’s no point receiving an email of someone’s booking two days after they were meant to travel.”

For many small businesses, BigPond’s problems brought home the fact that email has become a crucial conduit of information.

A Meta Group survey finds 80 per cent of business people consider email a more efficient means of communication than the phone.

The difficulty and expense of offering a live, online credit card processing facility means many small Australian businesses with a website get their orders by email rather than a true e-commerce system.

BigPond’s mail problems began with a faulty mail server software upgrade, which then became a spam overload, causing havoc for the company’s email users.

About 25 per cent of those customers have a business service with BigPond, and an unknown number are using residential BigPond products for their businesses.

Jupiter Research say 20 per cent of small businesses use BigPond for their primary email, another 38 per cent use other ISPs, and 13 per cent use Hotmail or Yahoo webmail.

Meta Group technical research services vice-president John Brand says figures like this show Australian companies are not taking email as seriously as they need to.

He says it is more important than finance and accounting services.

“It’s quite reasonable for finance and accounting to be down for a day. It is unreasonable for them to be out of contact from the world — on a desert island so to speak,” Brand says.

“It’s a mission-critical app, but it’s not viewed in that way. It’s used as an immature application.”

Having a domain name — and using it for all your businesses email addresses — is a prerequisite to exercising choice about email hosting.

Many businesses continue using their ISP email address because this is what’s on their stationery and signage, but this is held to be the worst sin by most IT consultants.

“What we recommend to people, and we have done for some time, is that they have their own domain name with an easily changed forwarding email directed to whatever POP or IMAP email system that they have,” says David Abrahams from IT Connect, an IT cluster on NSW’s Central Coast.

“In the event of one of the ISPs dropping off, they can just move it over.”

Aside from mail server problems such as the BigPond example, the ISP sector is continually changing, and acquisitions and better deals on access pricing mean change is inevitable.

Some small businesses have tried to get around this by using free email addresses from Hotmail or Yahoo, but these sorts of email accounts usually come with strict storage limits and tight conditions of use.

Having your own domain name is the crucial first step, says Sam Johnston of Australian Online Solutions. “That’s the critical thing, because then you can change ISPs,” he says.

Johnston’s small Sydney consultancy worked with numerous small businesses affected by the BigPond outage, including a travel agency.

The agency had its own domain name so, with Johnston’s help, it moved its mail service across to in-house Linux servers, restoring delivery time for both inbound and outbound messages to a few seconds, and avoiding BigPond’s mailbox size restrictions.

“As the mail clients are communicating with a server on their local network rather than over their internet connection, mail delivery feels more responsive,” Johnston says.

The travel agent may return to BigPond once the service is stable, but in the meantime Johnston is setting up Squirrel Mail, an open-source web mail system so staff can access messages from outside the office.

Local web hosts have beefed up their hosted email services recently, often spurred on by the newly released Outlook 2003, which allows

more comprehensive web access from the Exchange mail server.

“It’s just like using a desktop application,” says Lloyd Ernst, chief executive of Australia’s largest web host, WebCentral.

Ernst’s company offers mailboxes from $10 monthly to web hosting customers.

For those who don’t require the calendar options of Outlook, or who want a dedicated email tool, there are several email-only hosting services.

Fastmail.fm, a Melbourne company, was set-up to provide stable, web-based email four years ago.

Founder Jeremy Howard says he began developing the service for himself because he was “sick of downloading email from different sites”.

Fastmail uses IMAP, which lets users download email either through an email client (such as Outlook Express or Eudora), and check it from any web-connected computer.

Howard says many small businesses don’t understand that buying their own domain name and using it in their email address doesn’t necessarily mean running a server in-house.

He says: “They assume that’s what you need to have your own domain, I think.

“They don’t quite realise that for $US9 ($13) you can register your own domain, and then get hosting from $US40 a year.”

Another email host, BePrivate, has come up with its own spam filtering and privacy technology.

The San Francisco company’s methodology stops unwanted email being delivered, even to its own mail servers.

“We’ve found that small businesses are crying out for a solution,” chief operating officer Paul Antoine says.

“We suspected that would be the case, but we had been surprised at the degree of reaction.

“Many of them seem very dissatisfied with the email provider. Often it is under-provisioned and ends up with many of the problems that Telstra seems to be facing.”

According to the Pacific Internet/ACNielsen.consult

quarterly, Broadband Barometer, small businesses’ main internet concerns are viruses and email.

Sixty-four per cent of surveyed small and medium businesses rate spam as a concern.

Forty per cent of small businesses connected to the internet were using a spam filter as at the beginning of October — a 30 per cent rise on the previous quarter.

Only 14 per cent had no intention of using it in the next 12 months. Many ISPs now offer mail filtering services, either free or for a monthly fee, for business and residential customers.

Not surprisingly, the software industry has been quick to try to solve the problem of spam and other email-related issues, such as security and archiving, that analysts have begun calling “email hygiene”.

Meta analyst Michael Warrilow says there has been a great deal of movement and consolidation in this growing area, signalling more turbulence ahead.

For this reason, he says, it’s worth using a hosted option — whether from an ISP, web-hosting company, or email hosting specialist — for at least the next couple of years.

“It makes sense to find a service provider that’s going to provide you with a service you can just turn on and off without having to rely on a vendor.”

Quick guide to common email terms

POP3 or POP (Post Office Protocol)

POP3 is a common email delivery standard used to store messages and deliver them to an end users’ computer client, such as Eudora or Outlook Express. Users have little control over the messages, with message headers and attachments downloaded at the one time. IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol)

Similar to POP3, except IMAP allows messages to be shared and stored in different folders. Users can also view headers without downloading the entire message. IMAP4 is the latest version.

SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol)

SMTP is the standard protocol for sending email. SMTP email servers direct messages around the internet until they find the POP3 or IMAP email server that can then direct the message to the recipient’s inbox.

Webmail, or web-based email

The messages remain on the server, rather than being downloaded to the user’s computer. Microsoft’s MSN Hotmail is probably the best known brand of web-based email.

Internet domain names

Addressing system on the internet for businesses registering a domain name, such as www.smallbiz.com. For a list of registrars selling names ending in .com, go to www.internic.net/alpha.html. For Australian names (ending in .au), go to www.auda.org.au/registrars/

DNS (Domain Name Servers), domain management

Domain name servers or DNS servers direct internet traffic through a heirarchical directory to the correct destination.

This report appears on australianIT.com.au.

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