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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Putting my income where my mouth is

As I blogged a few months ago, I recommend that you store your email not on your own desktop/laptop computer, but rather on a server that you can access over the Internet, and that if you prefer to do your email using an email program (like Outlook Express or Apple Mail or Thunderbird) rather than through a Web browser, you should use IMAP on an email service that supports it.

Well, on Monday I started working at Tucows as Director, Tucows Email Service.

Some of you may remember Tucows as the original software download site on the Internet; I used it as far back as 1994. Today, Tucows the company still runs that site but also does a number of other things. Its largest business is now to provide services for resale by over 7,000 ISPs and web hosting companies. The largest reseller service is domain registration; Tucows is actually one of the world’s largest domain registrars! Also in the area of domains is SSL certificates: your website will need one of those if it’s going to provide https:// access, e.g. if people can buy things by giving a credit-card number.

Then there’s the Tucows Email Service, which is my main focus. ISPs and web hosting companies need to provide email to their customers, but doing it themselves means having to keep an email system working reliably around the clock, with spam filtering and antivirus protection. The most recent Email Metrics Report from the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group, of which Tucows is a supporting member, showed 86.7% of all email as “abusive”, meaning spam. You may think that the spam that’s directed at you largely gets diverted to your spam folder, but you’re not even seeing the additional email that is so obviously junk that it doesn’t even get put in your spam folder! The spammers are always coming up with new tricks, and the total challenge of running an email service well means that it’s an activity best left to those who specialize in it. Even Bell Sympatico, Canada’s largest ISP (I co-founded Sympatico back in 1995), which had a perfectly decent email system, upon forming a partnership agreement with Microsoft chose to migrate to a Microsoft-hosted email system for the future. So the Tucows Email Service is an excellent way for ISPs and web hosting companies to provide quality email to their customers, complete with 99.99% uptime guarantee. So far it has resellers on three continents; I’d aim for all seven except that I don’t think Antarctica has an Internet industry.

My other focus is the fairly new Personal Names Service, a unique offering that’s built on top of the Tucows Email Service and also makes use of Tucows’ specialty in domains. Suppose your name is Yvonne Desjardins and you have a typical email address like (slightly misspelled to foil spammers) yvonne.desiardins@sympatico.ca or yvonned@hotnail.com. What if your ISP contacts you and tells you that you can have yvonne@desjardins.net for a small fee per year? You might well be interested. That’s what the Personal Names Service does, via its collection of about 40,000 domains such as desjardins.net. (It doesn’t own anything for the surname Jayasekera – I guess my surname isn’t all that popular in certain countries!)

One of the interesting opportunities here is to make Web-based email access even better than using an email program installed on your computer. Webmail always used to be the ghetto version of email; you’d use it only because your email service was free and accessible only though webmail (and not very nice webmail either), or because you didn’t have your computer with you. Gmail was the first large-scale email system that aimed to provide a high-quality web interface, but as much as I admire what they’ve done, the fact is that I’ve never used my Gmail account very much. As I wrote in that earlier post, I’ve always preferred to use an email program, so if even I can be converted to preferring webmail that will be a good sign.

I’m very excited about this new job. When I first used email about 35 years ago, it was much better than it is now: if I sent an email, I could be sure that it would reach its recipients (unless they were avoiding their email of course!), and there was nothing annoying about email either. Plus I could retract emails that I had already sent. Now, email is more important than ever, but it’s deteriorated. I will do what I can to help make email great again.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Christina said...

Congratulations, Rohan!

Thursday, March 13, 2008 at 9:14:00 AM EDT  
Blogger mrG said...

Congrats, Rohan, sweet, sweet gig, and very worthy a task indeed. I did want to comment on just one thing, and that's that 87% spam figure -- after years of accumulating several thousand spams a day (because I refused to give in to the spammers and change my email address) I had this stroke of brilliance and wit and created a multi-media spam-fed generative-art project. "Go ahead! Make my day!" I taunted them because now I had a functional use for as much spam as they could throw at me, and through no fault of my own, throw they did. 2000, 3000, 4000 spams every single day!

My ISP was not amused, so I had to move my mail server into my basement ;) I created text, images and midi files, used the midi as a highly distinctive (but oddly musical) ringtone, I was having fun.

but then I met the Hermes Project.

Simple, simple idea based on a simple simple observation: Spammers are greedy! Hermes sits as a proxy between them and my SMTP service, and WHAM ... I went from 4500 spams a day to 12, and best of all, no false-positives.

yes, twelve. it was astounding. My art project basically starved to death overnight; its now fed on the whole month's spam which still isn't enough. I wrote to every mail-hosting colleague of mine to tell them the news and y'know, not one of them was interested! I'm totally stymied by that. 4500 to 12 in two seconds and it doesn't excite anyone???

"We already use spamassassin" they'd say, which I was using too, that being the reason my spam-rate was only 4500 :)

Now, there was a price to the Hermes success: the software is free-software, but it works by confining the incoming mail to the letter of the law regarding SMTP protocol, and since spammers don't have that kind of patience, they just move on down their list of 10-million names; you never even receive their spam (which you do with SA because it has to expensively scan every piece) -- hermes only needs the handshake conversation between the MTA and the SMTP, three or four lines of text. What this means is that legitimate email pays a cost of a slight delay on the first message from any sender; once they pass the by-the-book challenge, Hermes white-lists them, and it works pretty good, has a manual-override for those hosts that can't play by the rules but are actually legit.

There is one other expense: Because there are no corporate sponsors for the Hermes Project, the software has only one developer and he's doing the best he can, but the code isn't what we'd call five-nines quality. That could be fixed, of course, and I remember when Sendmail wasn't any great shakes either ;)

So anyway, like I said, I tell all my email-processing colleagues about this and here I go doing it one more time ;) Sorry for the long comment and congrats again on the gig, and do give my regards to Joey.

Thursday, March 13, 2008 at 10:12:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Jonas said...

Congrats Rohan!

Thursday, March 13, 2008 at 8:39:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, congratulations on the new job.

I have used the Netidentity service for about 7 years. Like so many others I signed up because they own my surname. I was happy to pay for the "vanity name" and enjoyed using it.

After Tucows purchased Netidentity the service and customer service both simply fell apart. After putting up with poor service for about a year I dropped it. I waited for so long because the service simply did not improve. Lots of promises, upgrades, changes to customer service but no improvement in product quality.

Good luck! Hopefully you can sort out this mess!

Friday, March 14, 2008 at 4:08:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jim said...

I'll echo the comments above - the Netidenty service has hit rock bottom since being taken over by Tucows. I have 2 accounts and I definitely won't be renewing one of them and the other is unlikely to be renewed.

I hope you fix this mess also.

Jim

Saturday, March 15, 2008 at 1:12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

christina, mrg, jonas and anonymous: Thanks!

mrg: It's my view too that the conventional methods of dealing with spam aren't effective enough. There are commercial solutions that take a similar approach to Hermes' (which may explain why Hermes has no corporate sponsors). I've already begun talking to the person at Tucows in charge of spam-fighting about this, and it turns out that he and I have similar views, so there's no doubt that we'll be working toward a substantially better approach, with the benchmark being the impressive results of Hermes and similar solutions.

anonymous and jim: Thanks for the alert (and for using polite language in your comments). Making Tucows' email services extremely reliable and predictable is in fact one of my top priorities. You should be able to rely on your email service the same way you can rely on your landline phone service.

Saturday, March 15, 2008 at 2:45:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kevin said...

Congrats Rohan!

Like Jim/Anon have been a with Mailbank, Netidentity, and now Tucows for almost 10years since they own my lastname.com. In the past used the webmail/pop/imap and webhosting products and had several family members on the service. Today it's down to just me with the minimal email account so I can forward the email to a more reliable provider.

Unfortunately even in this configuration I routinely get email bouncing and being rejected by the overly aggressive inbound spam connection dropping causing a significant number of false-positives. I've whitelisted * to attempt to turn off all spam processing by Tucows, but I still get valid emails being rejected/bounced by the RBLs that are given edge authority to reject email. I've sent several of these into support but with the support team being so behind they never respond or when I call say that the data is no longer relevant since it's been so long. :(

I've worked for a leading web 2.0 email provider for several years, currently at the largest webmail provider in the world and before that worked with a provider of carrier/ISP email software. So I'd like to think I know a thing or two about email. Providing a way for customers to opt-out of spam controls(even at the edge) and accept all email would be a great welcome and return some sanity to me and my contacts. Alternatively providing a way to get quick/timely feedback of problems (bad RBLs for example) would also help those of us who hit problems an automated way to report issues to your team.

thanks and best of luck with your new position.

-kevin

Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 1:25:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Kevin, thanks for your good wishes and for your comments on your experience. Specific issues you raised:

A way to let our more sophisticated customers report things like bad RBLs is an interesting idea, and I've added looking into this to my to-do list.

False positives are bad, but how bad depends on what action is taken as a result. I really dislike spam folders and quarantines as a "solution": they're helpful for some people, but since few people check them regularly, putting a message there is effectively like rejecting it outright — but with no hint to the sender of what's happened. A false positive isn't as bad if it results in a bounceback, because then the sender knows that the email didn't get through and can try to communicate with the intended recipient some other way.

You mentioned wanting to be able to opt out of spam controls. Note that for a forwarding account such as yours this isn't necessarily something we could provide, because if Tucows forwards spam we'll be seen as irresponsible — and then maybe we too will end up on an RBL!

Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 6:56:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kevin said...

"A false positive isn't as bad if it results in a bounceback, because then the sender knows that the email didn't get through and can try to communicate with the intended recipient some other way."

Not sure I agree with this. Not "as bad" true, but it's still pretty bad. For example my mom and the many less technical users out there have no idea what a bounce back is or how to resolve it. My grandma's email appliance (simple text reply device) can't handle bounces. Many many applications and e-commerce sites aren't setup to handle a bounced email since they don't have other means to contact you or the ability to alert when an email bounces. We could blame those poor email implementations or novice users but it won't solve the problem today. Have you guys looked at an address/domain whitelist at the edge? That wouldn't open you up to a 'forward everything, even spam' but at least give an out to have important contacts whitelisted. Also most major ISP's and consumer email systems can tell the difference between a direct email and a forward on-behalf of if all the right headers are set.

-kevin

Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 7:14:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Not to worry, Kevin, I'm with you on this. I didn't intend to suggest that false positives aren't bad, just that some ways of handling them are worse than others. As Tucows' CEO Elliot Noss said to me when he was interviewing me, deliverability is the top thing that people want in email, and false positives by spam blockers are one of the main things that interfere with deliverability, perhaps #1. In my own case as an email user, I'm so worried about missing a legitimate email that I'm willing to check multiple spam folders / quarantines, as much as I dislike the activity -- and I want to do more than just sympathize with everyone who doesn't do that and consequently misses legitimate email that could be very important.

Thanks for the suggestion of whitelisting at the edge -- I've added looking into that to my to-do list.

Monday, March 17, 2008 at 9:08:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Alexandra said...

So very behind the times. Congratulations!

Friday, June 20, 2008 at 2:03:00 PM EDT  

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