Edinburgh Web Development

Email - the bane of web design companies

by Iain Wilson

31 March 2009

Email has become an essential part of most people's life, it's hard to remember what it was like before we had it. You'd think by now it would be a pretty smooth running thing, but it is the absolute bane of web designer's lives. What is essentially a simple and straightforward service can cost us hours of (unpaid) toil and trouble.

Where's the problem? It should be very simple - it's really just a tale of two servers; a POP one to receive email and an SMTP one to send email. As long as you have an internet connection you should be good to go.

All you need to do is set up your email software (MS Outlook or similar) to use these servers. You need the address of the servers (sometimes they are the same) and a username and password for each (sometimes they will be the same).

So here are some of the problems we often encounter:

Receiving mail Usually this works fine. Sometimes the server name, username and password gets typed in wrongly, but in the main once you've checked that, there's not much that can go wrong. When your email software connects to the POP server, it goes to your mailbox and downloads your messages to your PC. Normally, the messages will delete them from the server but, and here's the thing that can go wrong, it's possible to leave them on the server. There's usually a setting in your email software that will allow you to leave them there (maybe to look at when you're away from the office). Quite often, there will also be a setting that says 'delete them after a certain amount of time' - BEWARE, this may not work - it depends if the server wants to honour that setting. So what can happen is that your mailbox gets full and you can receive any mail.

Sending mail Sending is where people hit most problems and it can get a little bit complicated because potentially it involves more interested parties.

First of all lets look at what happens with sending mail. When you've composed the email and press Send, your email software seeks out the SMTP server (the one that does the sending) and feeds the email to it. The server then works out where to send it next and sends it off.

That's the theory but this is where it can get a little tricky. The owners of the SMTP server don't want anyone just coming along and using it, so they often want to be sure you are a bona-fide customer, so they demand that you authenticate yourself before they will send the email. Unfortunately, there are several different ways of authentication, so you have to pick the right one. Most of the time though, it is a simple case of providing a username and password, and quite often these are the same ones as used for the POP server.

If that's the way your system is set up and it's working, great. However, it sometimes isn't quite so easy. Even if you have everything correctly setup as above, it might not work because of...... the ISP monster!

The ISP monster Your ISP is the company that provides you with your physical connection to the internet. Sometimes, your ISP won't want you to use anyone else's SMTP server than theirs (no problem using another POP server to receive, though).

How do you know? Well, they should tell you, but you might have lost/didn't understand the information. We've seen this happen with BT and some BT resellers, no doubt there are others. In these cases you can get an exception made, but it is hard work - it's easier just to use the ISP's SMTP server. This will involve setting up your email software to use the ISP SMTP server and their supplied username and password, and their authentication method - which will be totally different from what you have set up for the POP server.

So you can see how things can get a little frustrating for everyone. In 99.9999% of the cases, there is nothing wrong with the email service, it's working fine.

What can you do? If you're non-technical the best thing is to get an IT support person that you have faith in and get them to set it up for you. Or do what everyone else does and phone up your web design company!

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