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Can Sendmail be Resurrected?          Print the current page
by Brian D. Chmielewski

Have you heard of Sendmail? Even if you know a lot about the Internet, you probably are not aware of the greatness of this Internet mainstay. In fact, the Sendmail software can take some responsibility for making the Internet great communications medium that it is.

As you probably gather from its name, Sendmail plays a role in the enormously busy business of sending electronic mail messages. Specifically, Sendmail is a 'Mail Transport Agent'(MTA). An MTA works behind the scenes to transport your message from your email software program on your local machine to the mailboxes of your recipients. Almost every message requires the participation of a number of MTA’s interact to transmit it.

Since it works behind the scenes, Sendmail is not a program you normally hear about, see boot up on your screen or have an affiliate membership to. Still, they are very simple to view. To see what MTA’s have been used to deliver an email, this one for instance, you can look in the headers of the message. In Eudora, simply open an email message and click on the ‘BLAH ,BLAH, BLAH’ button that is located next to the little red truck on the Eudora frame or search for ‘BLAH ,BLAH, BLAH (Outgoing message option)’ in the help field. In Netscape, Go to the top navigation bar and select View --> Headers --> All.

Why are MTA’s and Sendmail particularly important? They are the building blocks of the busy Internet mail infrastructure, the Internet application that businesses and people rely on the most. More than any other Internet application, it is important that these building blocks fit together well.

It is unfortunate, but sometimes they do not. Sometimes, but very rarely, bad MTA’s fail to deliver email, causing serious problems for those involved, simply because they do not follow Internet standards. MTA’s do not deal with mailing lists properly fail to send back the properly assigned bounce messages. Even worse, they can accidentally set up a 'mail loop', where the same message is perpetually sent back-and-forth, causing bandwidth to be wasted, disks to fill up and systems to collapse, literally.

Whether you love it or hate it, Sendmail is the standard, and everyone who makes email software has to accept that. Typically, the software is always ahead of the game when it comes to implementing email standards, providing the most feature-rich MTA available.

Sendmail was first distributed as Delivermail in 1979 with 4.0 and 4.1 BSD UNIX in an effort to connect messaging on the new ARPAnet with the University of California at Berkeley’s systems running Eric Schmidt's Berknet protocols. Now at version release 8.9.3, Sendmail’s tried and true 0’s and 1’s have delivered billions of email messages. Its capabilities have even been scaled to meet the service demands of the world's largest institutions and corporations. Sendmail has become so complex, that few systems administrators would dare boast that they knew all of Sendmail's features. How amazing that software so complex and so depended upon is also free and even comes with source.

Now no one is saying that Sendmail is perfect. Sendmail can be a bit daunting to configure since it’s not the world's most efficient or elegantly composed program, now containing a million lines of code. As the dominant Mail Transfer Agent on the Internet, powering over 75 percent of the Internet's mail servers, Sendmail has had its fair share of security alerts.

Although Sendmail is the geek's favorite, it is slipping as the market's favorite, forming a decreasing proportion of the Internet's MTAs with every day. Many ISP’s still use it, but behind corporate firewalls, Microsoft, Netscape and others have entered into the market.

Why the drop in popularity? It’s not because of the technology, but because Sendmail win in the boardroom. It simply didn't make it to the ears of those making the decisions and when it did, it didn't give them what they wanted: a commercially recognized and respected brand name, and effortless setup and administration. Since Sendmail is a freely developed and distributed technology, IT administrators have depended on their peer group to provide support. Although basic installation isn't difficult, anyone who's paged through the 'Sendmail.cf' configuration file will know why decisions makers voted against Sendmail.

Sendmail is now fighting back with a great new web site. Anyone can now get a commercially supported version of Sendmail, which comes with straightforward web-based configuration scripts. While the base offering continues to be free, Sendmail now charges for these added features and support.

Sendmail Incorporated operates on a commercial footing and recently received US $6.5 million in venture capital. Unlike most software companies, its main asset is its brand and reputation, rather than its actual code base, which is given away for free. This money has been used to role out an initial marketing launch program. Sendmail expects to profit through providing 'value-add' services like GUIs and technical support. Presumably partner programs, which will allow systems integrators to use the new Sendmail brand alongside their own, will follow.

The lesson: We live in a market-driven economy where economic success depends on getting access to your market, and selling that market what it wants to buy.

There is little doubt that open source software is often the best quality software, especially in the case of things like Sendmail and Apache. There's no arguing that open source software is always the cheapest software. But in order to succeed in the marketplace, Apache, Linux and the others will have to find the money and the commercial model to access their market and convince the market that open software is something that they want.