Harvard Nails SendMail

Harvard University's EECS turns to Sendmail.

Product Information
Sendmail Single Switch v2.2
Sendmail Inc.
Emeryville, Calif.
(888) 594-3150

Simply routing and delivering e-mail is usually easy enough. And in most mail routing environments, system administrators dictate an approved list of hardware and software for their enterprise users in order to ensure support. Users abide by IT dictates, or suffer the consequences, which usually means getting unapproved programs wiped off their hard drive.

But things are different for Peg Schafer, a senior Unix administrator at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. She's head of the computer support group for Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and Robotics, an academic computer science research environment. "Most sys admins couldn't stand to work here because of the lack of control that they have here at the university," Schafer says. To stay sane, Schafer's approach is to adopt tools that don't impose a certain order on her users, but rather enable her and her staff to just keep up and ensure that e-mail gets delivered in a timely manner, no matter what.

Just last month, for instance, one researcher needed to flood the servers with e-mail—testing how various operating systems held up—while others were logging on from their start-up companies or in remote overseas locations with questionable IP security. It was up to Schafer to keep up.

A crucial tool for handling mail on Unix servers is the mail router, and a few years ago, after a needs analysis, Schafer determined she needed a mail router that she could configure more rapidly, and which had better documentation, to make administration easier for her staff. Schafer had 20 years of experience with Sendmail, the open source, de facto Unix mail router, and loved it, but administration duties were often carried out by part-time undergraduate workers, few of whom had prior Unix experience. So she looked to Sendmail Inc., a company in Emeryville, Calif. that sells a commercial version of Sendmail, to meet her needs.

Sendmail has been around for a while. Eric Allman created Sendmail in 1981 to let computers send mail to each other. "It was the first of what is now called mail transfer agents (MTAs), originally created to connect the Arpanet with the Berknet," says Greg Olson, chairman and co-founder of Sendmail. But Allman and his group of volunteers were having difficulty keeping up with feature requests from commercial users.

Details: Harvard and Sendmail

Team leader: Peg Schafer, Senior Unix Systems Administrator

Group Business/Mission: Cutting-edge academic computer science research environment—these systems are used to support messaging research

Department: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science computer research environment, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Web Site: www.eecs.harvard.edu

Scope: 200 messaging researchers

The Goal: Find a robust mail routing program to support researchers who select and configure their own laptops, desktops and software packages.

Results: Adding commercial Sendmail has improved messaging administration, providing the full-fledged documentation the group needs. The added security (from rapid virus scanners and updates) has been a reassurance, and the rapid re-configurability of the system—thanks to enhanced, GUI-based configuration tools—has been welcomed by researchers and administrators.


  • Mail server on DEC OS F1 Compaq
  • Compaq machine running Tru64 Unix
  • Other OSes include Solaris, FreeBSD

Evaluation Requirements:

  • Ability to easily reconfigure the mail router (open source version doesn't provide this)
  • Inclusion of excellent documentation
  • Improved security

Solution: Upgraded the free, open source version of Sendmail to Sendmail Switch in order to get enhanced GUI, security, anti-spam, documentation and support.

Product Chosen: Sendmail Single Switch v2.2

So in 1998 Sendmail Inc. was founded with Allman as chief technology officer. It continues to upgrade the open source version of Sendmail while also offering an enhanced, professional version with features that "an open source product wouldn't have or wouldn't have in a timely manner—such as security, wireless access, richer interface, any technical support," notes Mark Levitt, research director of collaborative computing at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Many organizations, regardless of their groupware or e-mail environment—including Harvard—maintain Unix mail servers.

"Unix is optimized for the processing of information and data, it's designed to scale easily and if you start with a small Unix box you can very easily increase in size and capability by adding a couple of processors, something that Windows was never designed to do and only in the past couple of years has it been designed for," says Levitt.

At Harvard, Schafer says the commercial version of Sendmail has been worth the investment. For instance, the "marvelous documentation" and graphical user interface (GUI) in Sendmail Pro administration tools, she says, make administration much easier for her staff. When the two full-time staffers or the 4 to 10 undergraduates on staff part-time have a question, they can look it up. "If I say, 'I want this to masquerade as so and such,' and they say, 'Okay …'—maybe they kind of know what that means—they can then look at the documentation and it will make it clear," she says, without her having to always explain things.

When it comes to upgrading mail routers, Schafer's decision to move from an open source version of Sendmail to a commercial one was not unusual, says IDC's Levitt. "Sendmail's biggest competitor is open source Sendmail," he notes.

Though it might seem like a free version of software is more attractive, Levitt argues otherwise. "Free can be costly if when you have a problem, there's no one to talk to," he says, especially given the mission-critical nature of e-mail. "Paying a couple thousand for a Sendmail Pro package could be a very cost-effective, cost-saving solution, especially with an e-mail router. If it goes down, you have a lot of people screaming, and you could potentially lose business." So many corporate users choose the commercial version, he says.

Commercial Success
Schafer is hooked on the commercial version; a year and a half ago, she further upgraded to Sendmail Switch to get enhanced security and anti-spam features. "Here at Harvard, I have these people who will go out and buy whatever they want, configure it themselves and then expect secure e-mail. That's one of the reasons that we need Sendmail Switch, because it helps a lot with all the various, diverse mail agents," she says.

Like any good sys admin, Schafer worries about computer security, especially because her faculty members are world travelers. "I have faculty who travel the earth with their laptops. And they might have e-mail that they download from other sites besides my site—their old university e-mail, their startups. [And] I can have this laptop come into my environment and God knows what has been sucked into it," she says. Sendmail is her first line of defense for keeping her mail delivery going smoothly, because it identifies security threats well, she says. But what really keeps her sane is that whenever she gets a message in the mail about a new virus, "right behind it is a message from Sendmail with the fix," she says. "And it works all the time."