EagleMail Gets a New Face, and More ...
By Ryan Hickey, UNIX Systems Administrator, Student Messaging Systems
This spring will bring changes in the EagleMail Web interface to student E-mail. Over the course of this past semester, we have been diligently working to provide to you a robust, high-availability student mail service to meet the demands of the University population.
Why are we changing?
We have several reasons for changing. First, as many of you may have noticed, the current EagleMail site is down a lot. Every 8-12 hours, the backend software powering EagleMail (CMGI Solutions Mailspinner) mysteriously stops responding, consequently, hanging EagleMail. Attempts to log in are met with either errors, or long waits followed by a timeout. This not only results in frustration, it prevents students from effectively completing assignments, communicating with professors, or just letting off steam in E-mail to friends. Since many students use EagleMail from campus computer labs, having a reliable system in place is extremely important.
Second, limitations in Mailspinners design prevent us from adding new features or changing existing ones. The current software we have in place is a commercial package provided to us as a pre-compiled Web application and server. This means we have no access to the program code to make improvements or changes. We are at the mercy of the softwares creator, CMGI Solutions, to provide the software updates, bug fixes, feature enhancements, etc.
Third, vendor support in regard to the above two items was severely lacking. Our requests for support with the aforementioned issues were met with very little response from the software vendor. Over the course of two months, we diligently tried to get the vendor to provide answers to our problems with the software. In total, six email messages and numerous phone calls went unanswered. Whether completely ignored or not, we knew that this level of service was unacceptable, especially with the problems we were having with the software. It was at this time that I decided to evaluate a new product to replace Mailspinner.
In comes IMP
Internet Messaging Program (IMP) is an open source Web mail package that has garnered the support of many institutions around the world. It supports 23 languages, and is completely customizable and configurable. It is written in PHP, which makes it platform independent. For example, we are running the IMP software on two independent Linux PIII-800 PCs, load-balanced by our RadWare WebDirectors. This configuration allows almost infinite scalability and redundancy.
Since IMP is open source (meaning we have full access to the program source code), we can customize it to meet our needs any way we see fit. We can add new features or change existing ones. Some of the changes we have already made are integrating problem reporting with our Remedy Action Request System, and integration with our UNT Bulk Mail system.
We feel that IMP is superior to Mailspinner as a Web mail platform.Over the course of this past semester, we have had our IMP development system in limited production for testing. This system has performed very well under high load and has proven to be extremely reliable. Over this time period, we have invited comments and input from the students who have been using it. Most of the comments students have submitted have been very positive. In a survey taken earlier in the semester, 85% of the respondents preferred IMP, 8% favored Mailspinner, 6% had no preference, and 1% gave no opinion.
Upon first glance, IMP is quite different from Mailspinner as far as looks are concerned. Both use an entirely different color scheme and layout. Most differences between IMP and Mailspinner are simply cosmetic. Both products offer the same set of features essentially, just in different ways. One thing users will notice is the difference between the address books. Mailspinner separates the personal address book from the directory address book, while IMP combines the two into one screen. Also, IMP pops open a new window for the address book (called Contacts), while Mailspinner loads them into the main frame. These sorts of things are minor, and can be quickly adjusted to as you use the new system.
Our current plan calls for full deployment of IMP by January 6, 2001. The server hardware has been delivered and we are currently making preparations for the switchover. We will maintain the Mailspinner installation until the end of spring in case unforeseen problems arise.
Students should feel at ease about this transition. Their mail will not be manipulated in any way, and all personal address books that are stored in Mailspinner will be transferred to the new IMP system. If anyone has any concerns, please feel free to contact the Helpdesk, who can answer most questions about the new system.