The Internet engineering community is wrapping up work on a new technique for tracking e-mail delivery, an important milestone as the Internet migrates from best-effort delivery of messages to the accountability available with low-tech alternatives such as Federal Express Corp.
Under development for five years, the Message Tracking Query Protocol lets a message sender determine the path a particular message has taken through the Internet and the status of the message. A complement to message receipts, message tracking chronicles undelivered e-mail.
Engineers from AT&T Corp. Labs, Sendmail Inc. and MessagingDirect Ltd. designed the message tracking protocol through a working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). These and other e-mail vendors are expected to ship products that support message tracking within a year.
Message tracking is "the top new feature I see coming out in Internet mail this year,'' says Paul Hoffman, director of the Internet Mail Consortium and an IETF participant.
"It gives e-mail administrators two really important things: the ability to track the messages they send out . . . and the ability to know when their e-mail systems aren't working," he adds.
For corporate network managers, the new message tracking capability should spur the use of e-mail for sending legal documents, contracts and invoices - anything that requires accountability.
"It's probably a good idea as long as the administrator can control the return information and can set controls about what end users can and cannot do with this information,'' says Joe McKee, a principal electrical engineer with Salt River Project (SRP) in Phoenix.
A quasi-governmental organization with 4,500 employees, SRP uses Microsoft Corp. Outlook and Exchange as its client/server e-mail software, and Sendmail as its Internet e-mail gateway. McKee says he'll be interested in the message tracking protocol when Sendmail supports it.
"We're still in the paper world for our legal documents. But with encryption, digital signatures and message tracking, I would envision that in a few years, we'd start to move more toward a paperless society and we'd start sending more documents by e-mail,'' McKee says.
The Message Tracking Query Protocol works along with an extension to the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) that provides the necessary information to track messages. Once a message goes awry, the Message Tracking Query Protocol lets the sender's e-mail system go to the site where the message went first to see if it was sent on and where it went. The sender can trace the message over multiple hops and across different e-mail systems to find out what happened to it. This capability lets the administrator fix e-mail system glitches and resend delayed messages.
Developers of the message tracking protocol foresee great demand in corporate environments, particularly in situations where a message sender needs to know when a message doesn't arrive.
"If you're sending a document with legal ramifications and it doesn't get there, what do you do?'' asks Tony Hansen, a principal technical staff member with AT&T Labs. "You can set the [Delivery Status Notifications] to send a receipt back when it gets there. But if it fails to get there, if it's stuck in a queue somewhere, you don't currently have any way to figure out where it's stuck.''The IETF working group has written four documents outlining the SMTP extension and the Message Tracking Query Protocol. One document is in last call, the final step before being published as a Request for Comments. The other three documents will be sent to last call in a month or two.
"There are no outstanding technical issues. It's just a matter of getting everything down on paper,'' says Hansen, who authored three of the documents.
The message tracking protocol eliminates one of the last advantages that X.400 e-mail systems had over SMTP. In fact, some groups such as NATO continue to use X.400 in part because of its message tracking capability.
"X.400 had adequate and widely deployed message tracking,'' the Internet Mail Consortium's Hoffman says. "It's a highly desired feature that we haven't had in SMTP until now.''Eric Allman, a co-author of the IETF protocol documents and CTO at Sendmail, says message tracking and encryption are essential for e-commerce. "When you think about bank statements and bills being delivered by e-mail, message tracking becomes very important,'' Allman says.
Allman says Sendmail will support the SMTP extension and the Message Tracking Query Protocol in upcoming versions of the open source and commercial Sendmail software. Lotus Development Corp. says it doesn't have immediate plans to support message tracking in Notes and Domino, but it will consider doing so based on customer feedback.
One challenge for the Message Tracking Query Protocol is how it will operate with corporate firewalls. Some companies will want to prohibit tracking through their internal messaging systems, instead letting e-mail gateways at the edge of their networks respond to tracking queries. Other companies may allow tracking for internal messages or for messages sent by a handful of trusted trading partners.
"One of the biggest advantages of message tracking is that two parties who communicate regularly can set it up to have an alerting capability when they see an anomaly,'' Hoffman says.
Another challenge is that corporate network managers must maintain a message tracking database in order to respond to queries. In addition, message tracking only becomes useful as it is widely deployed across the Internet, which will take a few years.
Despite these challenges, industry observers expect message tracking to have a significant impact on e-mail users and administrators.
"Message tracking will impact people's lives,'' Allman says. "It's one of the reasons FedEx and UPS are so useful.''