Future Enhancements to the CityU's Email Infrastructure

by John Chan

Over the last 2 decades, the CityU's Email Infrastructure has undergone several major changes. Back in the 1980s, the email system was provided as an optional service which offered assistance to staff and students to carry out their academic and administrative works. Nowadays, email system is not only part of the IT infrastructure in the university but has become an indispensable and primary communication tool for the whole university community. Demand on the usage of email systems has increased tremendously, especially in the last decade. Thus it is necessary, at this stage, to review and improve the current email infrastructure in order to cope with the rising demands.

The current email infrastructure as provided and supported by the Computing Services Center (CSC) is built upon the Sun ONE Messaging Server (formerly known as iPlanet Messaging Server, iMS), which has come to its current version under the code name of Java System Messaging Server (JSMS) version 6 and is part of the Sun Java Enterprise System packages. The JSMS provides standard Internet email services, including the SMTP, IMAP and POP3 services, for all users including staff, students, and alumni.

On the email client tools, the CSC has been providing Microsoft Outlook Express and Eudora as its supported tools. In addition, the CSC is also providing the WebMail (or WebMail 1.0, powered by Captaris Infinite InterChange) for all users to access their email messages via a Web interface using a standard supported Web browser.

All of these components have been used for quite a number of years. In order to review the whole infrastructure, it is necessary to review each part of it, from the users’ desktop email client tools to the backend email servers.

Enhancements in the Web interface

The existing WebMail is an obsolete product with many limitations and known problems that cannot be fixed. Thus the CSC is going to replace this with a completely new WebMail 2.0, powered by the Sun Java Messaging Express, which is a built-in component of the JSMS v6.2.

The new interface has many outstanding features as compared with the old version. Some of them are highlighted as follows:

  1. Composing HTML email content is fully supported.
  2. Good multi-language compatibility.
  3. Support of nested folders is provided, which means that every folder can be used to store messages no matter it has sub-folders in it or not.
  4. vCard function is provided.
  5. Draft messages are stored in an independent Draft folder.
  6. The look and feel of the folder structure and its management is close to common email client tools such as Microsoft Outlook.
  7. More user-friendly interface is provided.
  8. If a user's mailbox is more than 90% full, an alert will be shown after the user has logged into the WebMail.

This new WebMail interface will be released at the beginning of Semester B, 2007. It is anticipated that the old WebMail will be decommissioned very soon once the WebMail 2.0 is released. Users are encouraged to switch to using this version as soon as they can.

Enhancements in the email client tools

Eudora has been released as a standard supported email client software for staff use within the campus since the 1990s. Due to its weakness in security features and lack of multi-language features and vendor support, it is no longer a suitable email client tool for most users at this stage. Along with the line that the CSC has been providing Outlook Express as an alternative standard supported tool for several years, the CSC is going to standardize on providing a single standard supported email client tool with the release of the Microsoft Outlook.

The rollout of the MS Outlook will take place some time in Semester B, 2007. The MS Outlook has many features that Eudora is lacking. Once this is formally released, Eudora will no longer be a standard supported tool. The CSC will also replace the MS Outlook Express by its full-function counterpart of MS Outlook.

Staff are encouraged to switch to using MS Outlook as soon as possible. At this stage, the CSC has already started to provide standard support service on the use of MS Outlook through its Help Desk provision. Staff can seek help from them on the issues of installing and setting up MS Outlook as well as on the migration from Eudora to this new tool.

Enhancements in the email backend servers

The CSC is pleased to announce the planning of the provision of MS Exchange server as an alternative and supported email system for the whole university in 2007.

The MS Exchange server works together with its client counterpart, the MS Outlook, and provides a highly reliable, scalable, and unified messaging and collaboration infrastructure. Together they provide many new and enhanced features such as Calendar, Tasks list, Public Folder set up, electronic Notes, Global Address list, Scheduling, etc.

The Exchange server also offers a tightly integrated Outlook Web Access (OWA) component. The OWA is an extension of the Outlook, and has an interface very similar to Outlook, that allows users to access the Exchange through a standard supported Web browser.

As part of its built-in function, the Exchange server also provides Outlook Mobile Access and Exchange Server ActiveSync features. These features allow users to have a secured corporate email communication using a wide range of supported mobile devices including browser-based mobile phones and MS Windows Powered Mobile devices.

The release of the MS Exchange server is not a replacement of the existing email system using the Sun JSMS. Rather, this acts as an alternative for those staff and students who find that the deployment of the Exchange server will benefit their academic and administrative work, particularly for those who find that mobile computing is a necessity for their daily work.

The CSC is anticipating to providing this service as a pilot run towards the end of the Semester B, 2007. Full function will be expected to be in place in the next academic year.

Enhancements in email systems performance

Under the existing email system infrastructure, both the Incoming email server (for POP, IMAP, and HTTP) and the Outgoing email server (for SMTP) are running on the same computer systems. Due to the continuous growth of email traffic, the systems have reached their maximum capacity throughout most of the time, particularly during office hours. In order to improve the situation and speed up the email message delivery time, the CSC is going to separate the Incoming and Outgoing servers.

This will be implemented at the beginning of Semester B, 2007. Users are reminded to use correct email server names when setting up their desktop email client tools. For departments who develop their own applications that have email function incorporated, they should stick to this convention as well.

Users are reminded to obtain detail information on the settings of the email server naming convention from the Email FAQ "What are the names of the email servers?" at http://email.cityu.edu.hk/faq/emserver.htm.

Enhancements in email security

Over the past several years, the CSC has been implementing various ways to strengthen the email security. For email viruses, the CSC has deployed ways such as rejecting virus and attacks at network level, rejecting connection from known spam sites, dropping email with unsafe attachments and dropping email with viruses. For email spams (or junk email messages), the CSC has provided several ways for users to tackle this problem by discarding unwanted messages that are being delivered to their mailboxes. These include establishing Client-side Junk Mail Filtering rules installed on their desktop machines, setting up the Server-side Junk Mail Filtering rules which include the set-up of Personal White-list, Personal Black-list, and enabling of Spam Auto-filtering.  However, all these spam filtering methods only address the issue on how to manipulate those messages that arrive at the users' mailboxes.  It does not tackle the problem of how to handle such messages from the system resources’ point of view, especially when the number of the junk messages from the Internet is huge, and still growing.

To address this issue, the CSC will be using a "spam level" scoring scheme. Each message will be tagged with this spam level by the spam detection software. Based on this scheme, different approaches can be deployed to treat these email spams. The following is a high level description on the four different approaches one can choose, namely:

  1. The deliver-all method
  2. The deferred method 
  3. The quarantined and deferred method
  4. The drop method

The first three methods have been deployed by the CSC at various stages.  But as the situation gets worse, the CSC will not rule out the possibility of taking the more drastic "drop method" approach.

Departmental Email Archiving server

The CSC is going to arrange a separate email account for each department for storing their important and departmental-related messages, which would otherwise be kept in different personal accounts currently.

This account will initially be assigned with a much large storage quota. Each department should designate one or two persons who will be in charge of the management and maintenance of the account. It is expected that this account will be used to keep messages that are important to the daily operation of the department, and those messages that are needed to be kept for a prolonged period of time to serve as formal archive of correspondences for departments. The CSC will ensure that proper backups of these data will be maintained.

More detailed announcement will be made when this facility is ready.

Other enhancements

The CSC is also considering the provision of more email storage space for each staff. However, in doing so, a more restricted backup procedure will need to be in place. The CSC will review and improve the whole process of managing the resources. Similar arrangement for students will be adopted in due course.

With all the new features to be released in different phases, the CSC will re-design the email homepage and more detailed and enhanced FAQs will be published so that each user will be able to adopt all these new features and functions very easily. Users are most welcome to write their comments and suggestions to cc@cityu.edu.hk.