Migration Blog

Written by Nathaniel Borenstein, Chief Scientist at Mimecast, this blog discusses Email technology from start to finish-from interoperability to security to user needs to businesses processes and demands. His “Why is Email So Complicated?” series demystifies and illuminates the challenges of email migration and operation.

Get Ready to Archive Everything

Philosophers debate the degree to which our lives are governed by the so-called "technological imperative," as described by Daniel Chandler:

The doctrine of the technological imperative is that because a particular technology means that we can do something (it is technically possible) then this action either ought to (as a moral imperative), must (as an operational requirement) or inevitably will (in time) be taken.

One doesn't have to believe in the inevitability of the technological imperative to recognize that it is nearly always true. Japan's rejection of western firearms for several centuries is often cited as one of the few exceptions, but even it couldn't last.
In the 18th century, Thomas Earnshaw and James Hargreaves simultaneously invented machines to reduce the labor involved in producing yarn. Earnshaw destroyed his machine, fearing it would leave many poor people without incomes, but the gesture was futile: Hargreaves' spinning jenny did exactly that, so Earnshaw's scruples meant only that Hargreaves grew rich instead of him.

Business technology abounds with examples of the technological imperative. The advent of the photocopier vastly widened the circulation of business documents. Data processing led to much more data being retained and used. Modern networking technology inevitably gave us always-on jobs that can never be left at the office. And the ability to send large numbers of email for free gave us spam, despite all our efforts to stop it.

Today, we are in a transitional stage regarding archiving technology. In the era of analog telephony, i

Email Complexity and the March of Progress

You don't need to go beyond a high school course in Physics to begin to understand the importance of entropy and complexity in everything from the fate of the cosmos to the smallest, most unimportant-seeming details of daily life. And, speaking of spam, the end of another year seems like as good a moment as any to step back and reflect on the larger picture behind our daily battles with the myriad details of email system administration.

The technical press is fond of publishing the recurring claims made in some quarters about the imminent death of email. These claims are perhaps best understood as wishful thinking, or perhaps a cry for help, by people drowning in complexity, from the system administrator who is keeping his Exchange server running by the skin of his teeth to the casual user whose inbox is continually threatening to take over his life. Getting rid of email is an appealing simplification for nearly anyone these days, even those of us who've worked on email technology for decades.

But a glance at the bigger picture tells us that while the problem of complexity can be "solved" by moving backwards, it comes at the price of being left behind by those more willing to embrace complexity and somehow cope with it. Plenty of animals rejected the complexity of walking on land and breathing air; nowadays, more complex animals like humans tend to eat them. Most animals avoided the back pain and complexity associated with walking upright, having big brains, and living in large social groupings; nowadays, we mostly see them in zoos. A few human societies have rejec

Protecting Corporate Data on Devices using Microsoft Intune MAM Policies (Part 2)

Easy Migration: An Added Benefit of Cloud-based Archiving

Mimecast has been getting a lot of awards and recognition lately, and while I don't usually blog about such things, our latest award, for our Exchange Migration program, is worthy of some discussion.

I'm often asked why we've put so much emphasis on assisting companies in their migration to Exchange 2010; it seems like at best a sideline to our core business of providing unified email services via the cloud. But there's a method to our madness: we focus on migration because our basic architecture allows us to be particularly good at it — it's a major advantage of our cloud-based architecture.

A Mimecast customer delegates nearly all of the "secondary" aspects of running a mail system to us. Via the cloud, we provide a number of services, most important (for this discussion) a cloud-based archive. Having such an archive vastly simplifies a customer's migration to a new primary mail service such as Exchange 2010. Since everything is already archived to the cloud, you hardly need to move anything, since most of the data is stored in the cloud.

Given that architecture, it's no surprise that we've focused some energy on migration services, nor that we're winning awards for it. It's a great illustration of the power of the cloud model. And given that most of our customers are Exchange users, and that most Exchange users haven't migrated to Exchange 2010 yet, it makes a lot of sense for us to focus on Exchange 2010 migration in particular. Our service turns what might have been a very painful upgrade into an almost trivial one.

But that's just a special case, dete

Spam or Anonymity: We Don’t Have to Choose

With its new "Block 25" crackdown, South Korea has become the latest government to attack the spam problem with medicines worse than the disease.  Unfortunately, while many may support this approach out of ignorance of the consequences, such mechanisms advance a much more pernicious desire for control shared by almost every government in the world.

In all the talk about spam, it's easy to lose track of a simple fact:  Spam is a consequence of free, unauthenticated communication.  The simplest solution to spam would be to somehow ensure that all communications are authenticated and traceable, which is the motivation behind ham-handed measures such as South Korea's.  However, the availability of unauthenticated communication is also at the core of the Internet's role in facilitating dissent against governments around the world.

In other words, South Korea is betting that its citizens' annoyance about spam will outweigh their desire to communicate anonymously.  They hope that the end of anonymity will be justified by the end of spam.  But the bad guys are much more likely to find workarounds to remain anonymous while the average citizen becomes almost perfectly traceable.

That's pretty much been the experience of China.  A formidable bureaucracy, technical infrastructure, and legal framework have developed to efficiently punish Chinese citizens who dare speak their minds.  Yet somehow, for all this crackdown, China remains one of the world's great sources of spam.  This, I fear, is where measures like South Korea's are leading.

What's most lamentable about all this is that

Why is Email So Complicated? Reason # 501: Human Communication is Absurdly Complex!

In this series of blog posts — which started on the Mimecast site before migrating here — I've been writing primarily about the technical complexities that make email a much more interesting business than it seems at first glance. But some of the most daunting complications are not technical; email needs to support the complexity of social interaction in general.

A straightforward example of this is the MIME protocol, which I co-designed twenty years ago. Some of the complexities in MIME (such as 7 bit encodings or multipart boundaries) might be called "contingent" or even "fundamentally unnecessary" because they exist only for backwards compatibility with the pre-MIME email world. If one redesigned email from scratch, these things would probably go away. However, much of the complexity of MIME comes from the fact that people want to be able to communicate a wide range of information. It needs to represent text, images, sounds, video, and so on — to the point where there are now over a thousand registered MIME types, each of which needs to be handled differently when displayed to the user. The world of MIME types is complicated not because we failed to make it simpler, but because human commuication requires vast numbers of data types.

However, the single most complicated aspect of email — or any other computer-mediated communication, although email always seems to wrestle with the problems first — is the lingering effects of the Tower of Babel. There are an estimated 6700 languages in the world, and even though thousands are in the process of dying out, that

An Underappreciated Email Pioneer: Einar Stefferud, 1930-2011

Those of us who work with email every day rarely reflect on the people who created the technologies we take for granted.  Today, we should make an exception.

Not that many people will recognize the name of Einar Stefferud, but he was one of the great unsung pioneers of the Internet.  I had the privilege of working with him closely in the later stages of his career, and came to consider him first my mentor, then my partner, and then my friend.

Stef, as everyone called him, was a force behind the scenes of countless Internet innovations, but was rarely recognized as an individual innovator.  In part, that may have reflected a personality that was warm and supportive in private, but could come across as thorny and provocative in more public settings.  In the subtle jockeying for a position in history that has occupied many Internet pioneers in their later years, he was largely absent and ignored, apparently forgotten.  But he deserves to be remembered.

Stef got involved with the Internet in 1975, and soon became a player in the developing email infrastructure.  He had a credible claim to have started the very first email mailing list, and at one point he told people that they could send him email as "stef @ any machine on the ARPAnet."  Yes, he had an account or forwarder on every machine on the Net!  I doubt anyone will ever again make that claim.

Stef was active behind the scenes on a host of standards efforts, including the ill-starred X.400 standard.  But as he soured on X.400's complexity, he actually played a key role in defeating it, when he introduced me to Ned F

Why Is Email So Complicated? Part 150: We Don’t Know Who It’s From

A bell rings, or perhaps an annoying voice says "You've Got Mail." More often than not, the first question you ask is, "Who's It From?" How (or even if) you react to a message depends tremendously on who you think sent it. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to know for sure.

One of the reasons for the Internet's success — and one of the things that governments and intellectual property owners find most annoying about it — is its openness. No one owns the net; people just agree to interconnect their machines over communications networks, and to send and receive information, mostly but not necessarily using standard formats and protocols.

Those who disapprove of openness may yet triumph, but even then, the legacy of openness will complicate any attempt to make it easier to be sure of the source of an email message. Because email is sent between independent consenting peers, with no ability to enforce anything, our email protocols have been designed as if everyone were equally trustworthy, which has led to an almost universal lack of trust.

So when you get a message claiming to be from me, and it says
From: Nathaniel Borenstein <[email protected]>
what do you actually know? The two simplest answers ("nothing" and "it's really from Nathaniel") are demonstrably wrong. In fact, you have nothing like certainty, but you may have dozens of clues, and you may be able to deduce some intermediate conclusions with high confidence.

Most of the clues are in the hidden part of the message header that you rarely see. Even the most basic "unauthenticated" email will have some c

Why Is Email So Complicated? Part 101: There’s Just Too Much Of It

"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.  Listen…" 

Douglas Adams
When I tell people that I'm writing about why email is so complicated, the most common reaction is disbelief:  "Email seems simple to me."   The average email user has no more of a clue about the complexity of email than a hitchiker has about the size of the universe.  Email is complicated by a host of, technical, political, ethical, social, and historical factors, all of which I hope to discuss in due course.  But one of the biggest factors –and it's hard to believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is — is the sheer size and scale of modern email.  Listen…As I type this, Cisco is reporting that a single IP address has generated 15 million messages so far today, all of them likely spam.  Overall they estimate 40 billion spams per day, almost 15 trillion per year.  (Non-spam messages are only 1 or 2 percent of that volume.)  At Mimecast, we protect our customers from tens of millions of spam messages daily — and that doesn't make us unique in the least.  Finding the few good messages in all those millions is just basic table stakes in the game of email security.A theoretician might tell you that there's no major difference between processing 10 messages and 10 million; it's just a matter of scaling up your infrastructure.  But the people who work for email service providers know differently.   The problem is that there are more things that

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