Gmail, Talk, IMAP and your business: Transparent communication done right.

Having secure and universal access to seamless and synchronized data like email, contact lists, and calendars is one of the dilemmas of the small business, or anyone else who needs to stay connected. Google now hosts domain email under it’s Google Apps brand. In addition to secure pop3 access, I can also use the IMAP service so no matter if I get my mail on my Linux box, online, or on my Windows box, all 6 GB of email storage is at my finger tips. As a bonus, I have access to chat and chat logs and VoIP through Google Talk, a Jabber based IM network. I can even upload and access files on gmail through programs like GmailFS. There are packages for the GmailFS available in many different Linux distros including Debian (ubuntu), I’m not sure about Windows tools that do the same thing but there are web-based and therefore, cross-platform applications like php Gmail Drive that work fine. While they may have some minor issues as far as account/feature integration, and a seamless online experience are concerned, Google has always done search and email right, so it’s very easy to find one email or thread from thousands, and thousands of messages. Eventually, their GrandCentral acquisition should be integrated into the whole thing, providing SMS and Voice Messaging on top of it all. For now though, you can access your email from any mobile phone with internet.

I used to manage the mail server for gartnerwebdev.com, luckeycat.com, oneofakindwis.com, and a few others in-house using postfix, spamassassin, clamav and amavisd. With all of that control, I was reluctant, to say the least, to make the switch. We were quickly outgrowing our resources though, so I made the leap. The 8 or so email accounts and 40 odd aliases migrated with out too much hassle. The free version comes with more users and multiple domains than we will likely ever use. Google also has an Apps product aimed at the enterprise in case the standard edition just doesn’t cut it for you.

Sweet Irony

The BBC has an article today entitled Facebook ‘costs businesses dear’, about social network sites and how they effect worker productivity. “According to employment law firm Peninsula, 233 million hours are lost every month as a result of employees “wasting time” on social networking.” Resulting in £ 130m ($180m USD) a day in wasted pay. The irony? At the bottom of the article are links all of your favorite social bookmark sites – including Facebook. An article at gartnerwebdev.com from June of this year covers some of the other issues associated with inappropriate internet use in the workplace, and offers some easy suggestions as to what can be done about it. OpenDNS is a great place to start, for those wishing to block specific sites as well as content categories like porn and phishing. Unless your the IT guy, have a look at these articles and sites on your break.

Making Microsoft products play nice together

MailboxI recently recommended MS Office 2003 Small Business Edition to a customer for his new laptop. There are several reasons why I did not recommend Office 2007 but I’ll save that for another time. He took my advice and, since he paid for it, he wanted to use as many of the programs as he could. Everyone in his office uses Outlook Express but he was now using Outlook. A couple days in, it was noticed, that certain attachments were not getting to recipients in the office – the ones using Outlook Express. The email would come through and so would some attachments but, for the attachments that were gone, there was never any indication that they even existed in the first place. These were standard graphics files, mind you, nothing fancy. Well, after going around for a bit with Microsoft (a bit = 1 week, or so), the problem was traced to the ISP email server.

Outlook and Exchange encode certain attachments in a manner that are stripped when processed by “improperly configured” email servers – namely Open Source ones. That seemed a little odd to me that the ISP was to blame for the attachments disappearing between two Microsoft products, so I tested it. I sent a few emails from Outlook to Outlook Express through our Open Source mail server – no problems, everything got where it was supposed to go. I then disabled support in our MTA for TNEF encoding – that, according to Microsoft, was the culprit, and sure enough, the attachments that weren’t working for my customer stopped working for me. Apparently, the ISP did have their server mis-configured.

Transport Neutral Encapsulation Format, or TNEF is, paradoxically, a proprietary attachment format used in Outlook and Exchange – there really is nothing neutral about it. Our company MTA was compiled with TNEF decoding so there were no problems passing these attachments to the recipients. Since it is unlikely for an ISP to rebuild it’s mail servers, TNEF related issues can be largely avoided by sending email as HTML of plain text. Avoid RTF in Outlook as this format uses TNEF while HTML and plain text use the standard MIME encoding. TNEF encoding can sometimes contain user login names, file paths, and other potentially sensitive information from which attack vectors could be derived. This vulnerability was patched in 2006 but there are certainly a large number of un-patched systems out there.

Eventually, my customer grudgingly went back to using Outlook Express, accusing the entire IT industry of being a racket, since the large cable company that provides their internet service was not interested in reconfiguring their mail servers, I advised him to buy a product that didn’t work with this mis-configured equipment, Microsoft, the biggest software company in the world, couldn’t get two of it’s flagship products to play nice with each other. Microsoft did offer free support hours to quell my irritation with them, demanding that they make their products work with each other. I declined because, as a Microsoft Partner, we get free critical support – and I only call them when it’s critical. I did get a really nice golf shirt with the Microsoft logo emblazoned on the sleeve though. I believe that Microsoft sent my customer a credit for future purchase, but he never got it. It was sent as an attachment.