Coping with Diversity: Gateways and the PC LAN Email Explosion


Curator’s note:  This is the fourth in a series of commentaries by Ralph Ehlers, discussing his experiences with email implementation in the business world. This commentary describes the challenges, which implementors faced trying to link together various Email systems from different vendors. 


Until the end of the 1980’s, the corporate email market was dominated by a few big players. These were mostly the hardware vendors themselves, like IBM and DEC, and a few independent software vendors.

My company, ABB, used Verimation's MEMO. For details of its implementation and spread within the company, see my previous blogs Early Days of Corporate Email: Some Personal Observations and Early Days of Corporate Email: Selling the Idea . Verimation was a spin-off from the Swedish car maker Volvo and essentially a one-product company. It was an early example of a company  dedicated to an email product.

LAN Email Explosion

The beginning of the 1990’s saw an explosion of such companies, because of the spread of local area networks in business and eventually into the corporate world. This ultimately led to client-server architectures, of which some LAN-based email systems were early examples. Eventually, this very basic change of technology rendered host based email systems (as well as the host systems themselves) redundant in the business world, resulting in the quite efficient and mature systems which have dominated the last decade.

The transition from host-based email to PC LAN email was full of challenges. It was also very exciting, as there was so much innovation. The first LANs were installed at ABB before the end of the 1980s. During the following years PC LANs became more common, and the first LAN-based email systems were introduced. This was primarily a bottom-up development, driven by interested users. IT departments had a hard time acknowledging that there was life outside its IBM host systems. IT took years to shift from resisting these developments, to driving them. As a result, ABB soon had a wide variety of incompatible LAN email systems. I think the situation was similar in many other corporations.

For ABB, the proliferation of different LAN email systems was a big challenge to the smooth operation of email. We had just got some momentum towards increased use of MEMO. Then suddenly incompatible competing systems started to appear, putting the whole drive towards company-wide electronic communication in jeopardy.

Initially, the LAN email systems were departmental islands with no connectivity to the rest of the company. The first approach to deal with the situation was to use terminal emulation. This would let LAN users access the host and thus MEMO. However, that was only a short term fix, since MEMO's user interface could not compete with the richer and much flashier user interfaces of PC-based email. For PC users, terminal emulation soon became a synonym for archaic technology. In today's jargon: totally uncool.

Gateways Linking Isolated Email Systems

The next step in coping with email diversity was to employ gateways between different mail systems. LAN email vendors started to provide gateways from their systems to the big host systems. Soon there were also vendors who specialized in gateways. You could actually say that the 1990s were the decade of the email gateways (there were also gateways to X.400 and SMTP).

Our DEC-based email users had been a rather self sufficient, isolated community so far, somewhat irrritating for us MEMO focused IT people. We experimented with several gateways to connect them as well as some other LAN based systems, but initially the results were disappointing. The gateways lacked robustness and functionality. In particular, there was no exchange of directory and calendar information– the two key advantages of MEMO. So we tried to push Verimation towards rapid development of a LAN email client for MEMO, but unfortunately they were very slow on that, which ultimately caused Verimation's disappearance from the market.

The diversity of gateways as well as their weaknesses in functionality and reliability made us turn to Softswitch. Softswitch specialized in providing a uniform, integrated solution to email connectivity. Its product, Softswitch Central, was very expensive compared to LAN email, difficult to implement, and actually less uniform than stated in its promotional material. However, it did work reasonably well and it provided directory exchange. So we were able to link MEMO, the DEC systems, cc:Mail, Lotus Notes and one or two more email systems whose names I no longer remember. However, reliability remained a weakness.

In hindsight, it is clear that gateways were not a lasting solution, and that standardization on a single product was the right way forward. At the time, however, that was not clear. IT and the user community apparently needed to go through the pain of cobbling together their various email systems with gateways, before everyone was prepared to move to a single system.

To be continued.


About the Author

Ralph Ehlers graduated with a PhD in Physics from RWTH Aachen, Germany, in 1981. Read full bio here.

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