Petreley's column: Mail works best when it's sitting on your server

Readers had some interesting comments and questions about my observation some weeks ago that network computing is making its way into the enterprise by osmosis.

Some responded with the typical knee-jerk reaction that you'll have to pry their PCs away from their cold, dead bodies. Others pointed out that network computing is about software, not hardware. The latter is absolutely true, and it illustrates that fact that network computing is not about forcing people to give up their PCs.

Network computing is like cable television broadcasting. The cable provider puts out a signal, which amounts to little more than publishing information on the television equivalent of the Internet. You can receive the signal using any television simply by tapping in to the system with a cable box.

The television and cable box is like a network computer because neither has to store any local information beyond personal configuration data (in the case of the cable box /TV combo, one might enable closed-captioning, set favourite channels, or adjust sound and picture quality).

There are really only two important differences between this cable model and network computing. First, a network computer is likely to send more information back to the service provider than a cable box. Second, and more important, a network computer doesn't just have to render the information it receives -- the information may be a program the network computer has to execute. In order for this second qualification to work, the program must be platform neutral, which is why Java is closely associated with network computers.

So the only thing needed to enable a network computing environment is for service providers to publish everything in a platform-neutral format. And it has to be platform-neutral whether that information is static data or an executable program.

That's why network computing is about software, not hardware. By the above definition, a network computer is anything you can use, including a personal computer, to do things such as connect to an IMAP4 mail server, browse the Web, or run a Java application. So if you're one of those people who is paranoid about losing your PC, relax. The question isn't whether you'll have to give up your PC. The question is whether or not you'll want to give up your PC.

IMAP, you map

I also got a lot of mail from people who know I use Linux as my default desktop OS. They put IMAP together with Linux and wondered which IMAP client I use. Most of them assumed I wouldn't be using Netscape Messenger because they feel the Linux version doesn't provide an easy way to maintain several e-mail accounts simultaneously.

The latest version of Netscape actually does let you manage multiple accounts. But I found the question interesting because it betrays client-side thinking. I do use Netscape Messenger, and I do have several e-mail accounts. But multiple accounts are not an issue for me because I manage all of them automatically at my server. I use the free Cyrus IMAP4 e-mail server for Linux (available at andrew2.andrew.cmu.edu/cyrus/imapd). I manage the incoming mail using the deliver program that comes with the Cyrus server, and the GNU programs fetchmail and procmail. Every five minutes, fetchmail pulls down all the mail from various mail accounts. The procmail program detects where the mail is coming from and figures out where it should go. It uses deliver to drop incoming mail into my inbox or an appropriate folder.

As it happens, I sort mail on criteria such as the list server it came from. I don't make any effort to identify the account that was used to retrieve a message. But I could. And either way, it is the nature of IMAP4 to place the sorted mail in folders that are stored on the server. So not only can I consolidate all my mail into a single account on the server, I don't even have to worry about which computer I use to access that mail. No matter where I choose to view my mail, it never leaves the server unless I want it to.

The point is that once you begin to think of how to solve a problem at a server rather than at a client, life almost always gets easier. This is why network computing will succeed.

Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com). Reach him at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com, and visit his forum at www.infoworld.com.

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