E-Mail Technology 101: An Enterprise Guide to E-Mail Technology

E-Mail Technology 101: An Enterprise Guide to E-Mail Technology

IT managers should know the basics of how e-mail gets from sender to recipient, and what can delay or prevent its arrival.

You depend on e-mail. You couldn't get your work done without it. Yet most users (not to mention IT professionals and managers) experience e-mail as a mysterious, magical function. You write a message on your computer, you click Send, and moments later, it appears in the recipient's inbox. Poof!

E-mail happens invisibly. No creaking and groaning of IT infrastructure reminds you that e-mail delivery is actually a complex system with a lot of moving parts. Overall, that's a great success story — how many long-term IT services work so smoothly that users take them for granted? But if you have any responsibility for ensuring that the mail arrives, or for managing the hardworking e-mail administrators who do, it behoves you to know a minimum of the technology basics.

This article centres on the technology of e-mail. It doesn't go into e-mail management, corporate policies or matters that involve human behaviour. (That subject is covered in E-Mail Management 101: An Enterprise Guide to E-Mail Management, which I like to think is a companion piece, suitable for framing.) Nor does this article address the key issues to consider in the war against spam, though spam fighting represents a huge amount of an e-mail administrator's energy (and angst) these days.

Don't expect technical depth: This is, after all, an ABC, not the entire alphabet. Managers should, however, understand that a full conceptual explanation could easily fill 40 pages with dense technical definition; most of it is far more than I want to know, too. If e-mail is important for your business, however, you should have skilled people around who are up to the challenge.

This article covers the underlying technology (or, if you prefer, the most essential of those magic spells), so you have some idea of how the process works, and thus what can go wrong.

How does e-mail get from the sender to the receiver?

A. Perhaps the first fundamental is that e-mail isn't handled by one kind of server or technology. It's a suite of protocols that are served by distinct processes. We'll look at those in a little more detail after the overview.

Let's say you've written a brilliant message in your e-mail client — the software application you use on your desktop to compose and organise messages, such as Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail or Thunderbird. E-mail professionals call that client application the mail user agent (MUA).

The MUA may not be a desktop application; it may be a “Web mail” application that runs on a Web server and which you control using your browser. Web mail clients, whether through Gmail, Yahoo or a corporate front end to another system (say, to Lotus Notes), are treated the same way as desktop client MUAs by the rest of the e-mail transport process.

When you click on the Send button, the message disappears from your screen. . . and sets an entire chain of events in motion.

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