What is Email?

Electronic Mail, that's what email is short for, and indeed it serves as a way to send a 'message' electronically between one or more mailboxes.

There are many email providers, GEN included, but not all email services are equal, which we'll explore here.

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History

Way back in 1971, the first functional email service was birthed on ARPANET (a precursor to the Internet), and by 1973, email accounted for three quarters of ARPANET traffic. There were 'messaging' systems before this, but the ARPANET was the forerunner of the Internet, and actually at this time the @ was selected as the separator in email addresses.

Before the 'internet' became a thing, in 1984, we were still using dial-up modems to connect to BBS's, and X.400 systems. X.400 was a protocol that was designed to allow data exchange between different proprietary systems, and X.400 had its own email system. At about the same time FidoNet was founded, as a way of sending messages between users of BBS's, based a little on X.400's implementation. FidoNet and X.400 both grew in popularity.

In 1990, GEN launched its first Email service called GENMAIL, which was a message router connecting X.400, ARPANET and FidoNet email systems, and this was the first integration of the three. In the same year the ARPANET was decommissioned and the internet was born, and GEN switched our ARPANET router to one of the first custom coded SMTP servers.

You have to understand that back in 1990, GEN's total bandwidth to the internet was a sub 1M/bit connection to BTNET, and our links to Fidonet were via a bank of dial-up modems. Its staggering to think how recent this really way and how far we've all come. FidoNet fell out of Popularity as so did X.400, and by 1995, both systems were no longer in use, and GENMAIL was limited to internet email only, but as the first 'free' service when the likes of AOL, Compuserve and MSN were selling both access and email at a price, GENMail grew massively in popularity.

In 2012, GEN formally retired its 'free' GENMail service, but we transferred all users who wanted to remain onto the newly launched GENZone service (and added redirects so that GENMail email would still be delivered). GENZone was an advanced email service with a host of features not seen before, and had a mix of free and subscription services.

How it works - Transmission

Email is sent over the internet using a protocol called SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). SMTP has a lot of history, and has gone through many changes over the years, but we (GEN), unlike Google and Microsoft, still support even the most elementary implementations to support the maximum number of older systems.

SMTP defines how email servers should communicate with each other, and in what formats they should use. Essentially, SMTP is a 'text' protocol, which means that the conversation between servers occurs in plain text. Let's send an email manually by typing commands directly at a mail server:

Connected to reliance.dc.gen.network.
Escape character is '^]'.
220 reliance2.gen.network GENX Advanced ESMTP Messaging Router Postfix

We're connected to the server, let's introduce ourselves.


HELO test
250 reliance2.gen.network

We're now connected to the server, and we're ready to send an email.


MAIL FROM: someone@gen.net.uk
250 2.1.0 Ok
RCPT TO: someoneelse@gen.net.uk
250 2.1.5 Ok

We've now told the server who we are, and who we want to send the email to, let's give it the message.


DATA
354 End data with .

We now send the actual 'content' of the email.


Subject: this is a test
Date: 2024-05-13
This is a test email
.

The . tells the server we're done sending the message.


200 2.6.0 <35sherthw46uwrthsw.id>[queueid=45364678356835>Accepted for delivery.

Our message was accepted, yay. Time to say goodbye.


QUIT
221 2.0.0 Bye
Connection closed by foreign host.


Now that's a very simple conversation and in reality its a lot more complex than that, but if you happen to have a Sun Sparc from 1998, and an email service with GEN, then you CAN USE IT to send email.

Today, we ask for TLS encryption to protect the message in transit, and we have a collection of frameworks like DKIM and SPF to help reduce spam.

Transport Encryption

For a few years now, its been encouraged to use TLS (Transport Layer Security) to encrypt all email in transit, and of course we do. This encryption is done point to point between two mail servers so that your plain text email's are not readable by anyone who has the ability to intercept the traffic, e.g. ISP's, the Government actors, interested third parties, etc.

We also support client encryption between your computer and our hosting clusters, which is also TLS based, and this prevents anyone on your company network being able to intercept and read your plain text email's. It has to be noted that 'some' companies, block TLS email connections on their corporate network, specifically so they can intercept, and store incoming and outgoing email, but we do discourage this by providing tools and services for companies to use server-side to achieve their compliance objectives.

Message Encryption

We believe that encrypted email is important, so that email's sent between colleagues, or companies are protected from compromise even if they are intercepted.

This encrypted happens at the message level, by encrypting the actual body of the message with a 'key' that is the recipients key, when the recipient receives the message, only they can decrypt it. The exchange of keys can be done in a number of ways, via a key server, via email, via shared storage, in person.

Keys can be generated for a fixed term, for example a year, or they can be valid indefinitely, and this is a choice for the user.

A good email client, like Thunderbird, not only allows the creation and management of keys within the software, but also will automatically encrypt a message if it has the correct key.

Assuming everyone in the company sets up their own key's, then everyone within the company can be completely secure, and as more companies take up encryption, the number of auto-encrypted email's will grow.

If you're interested in setting up encrypted email, which is a free to any GEN customer, then reach out to the HelpDesk at support.gen.uk and we'll be happy to help.

Bodies

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 15.17.45

Whilst the sending of email is a fairly simple process, the body of the message is less so. We started with text email's, that's just A-z0-9 and .,(){}!@£$, and that was fine for everyone, then almost as soon as email because widely adopted, MIME (Multi-purpose Internet Mail Extensions) as proposed and accepted, allowing the sending of attachments, which was nice. Then for some inexplicable Reason the long since deceased Netscape, introduced the ability to have 'html' as an email body, and generally no one thought that was a good idea, but then Microsoft for whatever reason decided that sending html (so a web-page) via email was a great idea and added it to Microsoft Mail. As time went on, other clients slowly adopted the ability to handle HTML email's and today, some 25 years later we still have issues with Microsoft Outlook talking to any other email client. This is because an email, cannot contain a web-page, so instead it supports a 'subset' of html, and of course everyone disagrees on what the subset should be. This is why you will occasionally get email's from that look like the example to the right, so well done American Express, top job.


The biggest issue with HTML is that, unlike a web-page, an email doesn't have access to the internet at the time you open it, this is blocked of course or, an email could pull a 'bad' or malicious file from the internet upon opening, and do bad things with it. Microsoft, are legendary for allowing html in email's to run and infect computers, and that's the risk if you want fancy looking email's. If you are having issues getting your HTML email to format correctly, and need some pointers, remember the HelpDesk is available 24/7.


MIME, as we illuded to early allowed attachments, but over the years it was expanded to allow much more. With MIME for example you can send email's that contain both a text version and a html version, and some that have a mixture of languages, or content types. MIME despite being quite awkward to get your head around internally, is actually a great addition.

Did you know that even today, your images, and binary attachments have to be converted to 'text' so they can be sent? We call this binary => Ascii conversion Bas64_encoding (We have an encoding tool in the tools menu, you can play with base64 encoding/decoding if you wish).

SPAM

We cannot escape the subject of SPAM, which has blighted our mailboxes since the mid 90's. Spam succeeds because the standards, that everyone agrees to are simply too loose, and that's not a criticism, its just a fact. I think that having open and loose standards is a good thing, it means that everyone can join in, anyone can write their own mail server and are welcome to do so, but, it does allow people to exploit the system to fill your mailbox is crap.


How do we stop SPAM?

We're doing our best to fight spam, and we now use three key technologies, DMARC, DKIM and SPF. You can read more about each of these on our Knowledge Base and we've linked those for you.

By using and implementing SPF, DMARC and DKIM, we ensure that the servers talking to us, are indeed allowed to send email for a given domain, and are setup correctly. This massively inhibits the spammers ability to generate mass email, and had it not been for the likes of hotmail, yahoo, gmail, etc, then spam would be all but eliminated. Unfortunately, the 'freemail' providers (a) don't care what people do with their services, because they aren't paying for them, and (b) the rest of us are forced to accept mail from them, on the off-chance that our customer needs to receive email from a freemail account, and that's unfair.

I personally think that email shouldn't be free, I believe that everyone should have their own domain name and their own email, which only costs a few quid, but it would mean we could eliminate spam completely. As long as we have a situation where people can just get a free email account, generate a load of spam email's and then dump it, we'll never be free of it. For what its worth, GEN does have a corporate plan where we block all freemail, and for those customers its a very pleasant experience, but not all clients can afford to just block freemail, we have retailers as clients who need to be able to get email's from buyers and they cannot take advantage of this.

AI, is a powerful tool in the fight against spam, but its an expensive tool. We handle something like half a million email's per hour on each of our message routers, and having an AI scan every message, and score it on spamminess is simply impractical at the moment. We do have our own resident AI's that we leverage for a range of business solutions, but even with our beefy servers its simply not possible... yet. So instead we rely on advanced pattern matching, which means that we have tables of patterns that we find in email's, and these patterns each carry a penalty. For example " SALE " may be given 0.001 point, and " REDUCED " could be given another 0.001 point. There are tens of thousands of these patterns, and an incoming email is scanned for these patterns, all the points added up, and then if the total points exceeds a set threshold, the email is considered likely spam and passed with a flag, or put into the spam Folder, and if it exceeds a maximum threshold the email is simply deleted.

These patterns, ARE generated by a mix of AI and humans and their point scores adjusted constantly to maximise the chances of detection.

Features

A good business grade email service needs to be flexible, feature rich, and fully supported, and that's not widespread. In fact many email services are very basic in what they office, and have little or not support.

GEN for example, provide ALL features right across the board and we only charge based on storage. If we release a new feature, everyone gets it without exception. Let's look at a few features that can be important:


Rules

Being able to automate email is a valuable feature that can be used to auto-organise your email. For example, I have a number of folders under my inbox for my top clients, and when an email arrives from those clients, it is automatically moved into the correct folder. Likewise, some senders who just keep sending UCE even after telling them to stop, are simply deleted with a rule. An email from a specific sender can be auto-forwarded internally to a team, or, can be auto-replied to with a list of contacts. These are just a few examples, but with powerful rule processing you can really take control of your email.


Auto-Response

Many email systems allow the setting of an auto-responder, and some even let you set some dates on it, but GEN allows the setting of any number of auto-responses, specifically to given senders, domains, content, and even allows substitutions so that email's can be dynamically constructed as they are replied to. The use of auto-responders can greatly enhance customer satisfaction by providing a receipt confirmation, and also advising of timescales, links, contacts, etc.


Auto-Clean

Not everyone is skilled at keeping their email inbox tidy, and that's perfectly acceptable, but if you use rules to move client email to folders, you can setup an auto-clean on your main inbox to purge email automatically after 3 months, or any time period you prefer. Being able to keep your inbox clean is a real bonus especially when you're busy.


Archival

If you're working in departments that are client facing, and are engaged in dealing with orders, changes, cancellations, complaints etc, then your company may consider that having an archive of all inbound and outbound email would be a compliance bonus, allowing them to go back years if needs be to confirm or deny a claim. GEN provides a comprehensive set of auto-archive options, but many don't.


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