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E-Mail—The Killer App!

Technology dreamers are always pondering what the next “killer app” will be. I want to propose that we have a real killer app on our campuses right now.

Technology dreamers are always pondering what the next “killer app” will be. I want to propose that we have a real killer app on our campuses right now. It’s certainly not what comes to mind when we are dreaming about killer apps, but this critical enterprise application is wearing us all down. And sometimes it feels as if it is killing us. It has certainly shut many of us down for periods of time. It is taking the scarce time of some of our best technologists and keeping us from implementing newer services or improvements to existing services. And it is costing us money as we upgrade our servers and add spam and virus management software to our mail environments. I’m talking about that most ubiquitous of applications: our e-mail service.

In the past year, in a meeting with our deans at UW-Madison, I came away with the impression that e-mail had become a more important means of communication than the phone. This distinguished group of campus leaders, along with the rest of us, has become very dependent on a reliable e-mail service to do their university business. And these folks expect this service to be on all of the time, as well as very fast. Those of us responsible for both the telephony service and the e-mail service know that our phone service is extraordinarily reliable. But to date, our e-mail services are not 99.99 percent reliable. And just try talking about a service with a 95 percent uptime. That certainly won’t fly—it’s more than 18 days of downtime. And 99 percent is hardly good enough with almost four days of downtime. Yet, between some of the attacks we have had on our systems during this past year, as well as time required for maintenance and upgrades, I imagine most of us have not seen a service that has been available without some significant degradation for 99 percent of the time.

It’s the volume of mail that is making e-mail the killer for me. I report to the provost at Madison, and I periodically call him to ask if he has reviewed something that I sent to him. He almost invariably responds that he has—and that he has sent me an answer via e-mail. When I look, I find that his e-mail is one among the multitudes in my in-box. I have been managing my work life on e-mail for a long time now, but the volume of mail I receive boggles my mind. My inadequate solution is to rapidly skim the headers of incoming mail and select a few messages that I am sure I need to read, and read them. Doing this, I clearly am missing many messages that I should be attending to.

Our campus mail servers have spam management software running. I do have some spam filters set for my incoming mail: I do try to refer junk mail to the junk folder so that my smart filters get smarter. I’m not as diligent about this as I should be—because it takes time. I want to use e-mail as a tool for my own productivity, not as something that I have to keep managing, something that I find a time sink.

I did a non-scientific survey of colleagues around the country to determine what had happened with mail volume during the past year and what folks were doing to manage that volume. I received responses from 28 institutions including my own. I asked how many mail messages were received during April 2003, and how many were received this past April. I asked folks what the percent of spam was during those time periods, and whether spam filtering was being used at the server level. The schools I surveyed were small and large. A year ago, daily mail volume (at the central mail server) ranged from 18,500 messages a day to 5.9 million messages a day. This past April folks reported volumes ranging from 22,300 messages a day to 9.2 million messages a day. For some folks these numbers were estimates, for others they were real counts. Discounting some reports that were very different from all of the others, folks were reporting an increase in mail volume over the year between 25 and 116 percent. A 25 percent increase over last year is a lot more e-mail. A 116 percent increase is a lot more e-mail!

Then, I asked folks to report or estimate the percentage of e-mail that was spam. Their estimates ranged between 25 to 80 percent (again dropping a couple of outliers). That’s a lot of garbage running around the Internet and making us less productive.

Most of my reporting colleagues indicated that they are currently running some kind of anti-spam software for their incoming mail. Most of them also indicated that taking advantage of the anti-spam capability was an opt-in option for their e-mail users. A few brave souls had implemented opt-out options and a couple of the places with huge mail volume are talking about automatically eliminating some e-mail (never to be seen again) that has a very high probability of being spam. In our communities, simply junking mail that looks like junk rather than sending it to its final destination is a controversial step.

I don’t want to get bogged down in unnecessary or garbage e-mail. I don’t want to continue to have to add mail server capacity because of junk mail. I suggest that it is time, as a community, that we accept, as a best practice, aggressive anti-spam actions. Let’s stop living with e-mail as a “killer app.”

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