List Server Functionality for Those Without Deep Pockets

Wednesday Mar 21st 2001 by ServerWatch Staff
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Maybe you want to host a discussion list but your mail server lacks the functionality to do so effectively. Or maybe you don't even have a mail server.

Maybe you want to host a discussi on list but your mail server lacks the functionality to do so effectively. Or maybe you don''t even have a mail server. In a recent issue of his Web Informant e-mail newsletter David Strom ran through the various options afforded to him when he decided to switch h is discussion list. In his review, he discusses a host of scalable options he considered.

These days, you have ple nty of choices when it comes to finding a provider who is willing to host your mailing list. Depending on the size of the list, whet her you want to support one-way or two-way communication among your members, and numerous other features, you probably have several dozen vendors who range from completely free to charging several hundred dollars a month for their services.

While it certain ly is nice having all these choices, with choice comes confusion. So let me try to clarify the options, and walk you through my own decision process on how these essays are distributed.

But before I get into that, I want to take a moment to recap the vario us technologies I have used over the five plus years:

  • The first 43 or so issues were sent out with custom perl scripts using Unix sendmail, sending out HTML-encoded messages. (Boy, was I ahead of my time.)
  • Intermind''s Communicator push cl ient software sent the next 20 or so issues, in parallel with those who wanted to continue to receive plain e-mail.
  • Next, in fall 1996 I experimented with PointCast''s software, and tried that for a few years, still in parallel with my perl/sendmail syst em.
  • In June 1997, I replaced sendmail with a series of Allaire''s Cold Fusion scripts combined with a list maintained in a Lotus Approach database.
  • Then around issue #90 in the fall 1997, I switched over to Revnet''s Groupmaster service.
  • Then, in May 1999, with issue #156, I began using the eGroups service.

For the past two years, I was a very satis fied customer of eGroups, but after the changeover to Yahoo! I became concerned. I got spoiled at eGroups having direct contact with both senior management and technical staff: If I ever had a problem, I could get someone on the phone and get something quickly res olved. Getting someone on the phone at Yahoo! headquarters is impossible, and finding the right person even to respond via email isn ''t easy.

Also, I wasn''t happy with the way Yahoo! decided to add its own footer to my messages. It was a small thing, but hey, this is my list and if I wanted to include advertisements I would have done so long ago.

Finally, I began to see some s igns of poor customer service when I read some of the postings on the various Yahoo!-maintained discussion lists geared toward list owners.

So, off to the technology races once again. I decided, rather than conducting an extensive evaluation, I would look at services for which I had good contacts with the principals involved.

First, I looked at Yahoo''s main competitor, Topica. I knew the CEO personally and had good relations with the company''s technical people, and I had a test list setup with them for se veral years. But Topica didn''t offer enough control over how the messages are sent, and it also includes self-advertisement in the footer of each message.

Next, I looked at hosting providers who charge a small monthly fee for hosting lists. There are doze ns of these operations now, and two good lists of them that provide details including pricing and the underlying technologies used: http://list-business.com/list-service-providers/ http://www.gweep.bc.ca/~edmonds/usenet/ml-providers.html

I then examined t wo technologies: Lyris and L-Soft''s Listserv. Both have been around long enough to be well-tested and well-developed. Both come fro m the command-line Unix world but have Web interfaces to help in the configuration. Lyris is used by Sparklist.com and Dundee.net: m y list would cost $50 per month on Sparklist and about half that on Dundee. (There are plenty of other Lyris providers, those are ju st the two I chose because of my own contacts.)

To get a feel for the web interface of Lyris, you can go to Dundee''s orderin g page. There you can see the various parameters needed to specify to setup your list. These parameters include things like whether or not subscribers can post messages, how subscription requests are handled, and the like. The interface is a single page, with all the options presented fairly clearly at http://www.dundee.net/isp/p-list.htm.

Once you set up your list, yo u get access to other Web pages to manage your list, to set up new subscribers, and to approve and post messages. While this sounds somewhat similar to what I was used to at eGroups, the actual interface was somewhat clunky and there are numerous pages to wade thr ough and to understand. Still, Lyris-oriented lists are powerful and the prices are reasonable, and I know many people who are happy customers of both vendors.

L-Soft offers a hosting service for Listserv called Ease, in addition to selling the actual softw are. I liked this interface better, even though it initially seemed more cumbersome. This is because of list serv''s long heritage a s a command-line mailing list processor, meaning that prior to the Web, you sent the Listserv computer commands imbedded in the e-ma il text, and Listserv would respond accordingly. L-Soft''s pricing is somewhat complex, but I figured it would come out to about $70 a month for my list, if I sent it during the weekends.

L-Soft''s Ease has transformed Listserv with a thin panache of a Web interface, but it is thin enough that you still need to make use of the command syntax. For example, when you go to the Web configur ation page, you are presented with a series of commands that looks like this:

 Confidential= Yes Validate= Yes,Confirm Subs
cription= By_Owner Notify= Yes Send= Editor,Hold,confirm Review= Owners Reply-To= Sender,ignore Renewal=No Auto-Delete=Yes,Full-Auto
,Delay(3),max(20),probe(30) Errors-To= Owners Digest=Yes,same,daily Sender= "David Strom''s Web Informant " 

Each one of these command lines does something important, and to really understand them you need to carefully read the documentat ion. Granted, once you set up your list to your satisfaction, you can probably forget about this syntax and these commands, and just send your mailings out into the world.

However, since this was an evaluation based on personalities and corporations, rather than actual technologies, I went another route, choosing to use Ezmlm and qmail, hosted on O''Reilly''s servers, for a combination of reasons. First, I had real people who were experienced Unix and mailing list administrators with whom I could work, so I wouldn'' t be able to do anything stupid on my own -- or so I hoped. Second, there wasn''t any Web interface, which I found strangely purifyi ng, if that would be the right word, and I could focus on getting the mailing list content out. While having the Web interface is ni ce, dealing with the various quirks in sending out each edition of Web Informant isn''t as obvious as just composing an e-mail messa ge and sending it to the mailing server address. Finally, I like the folks at O''Reilly and welcomed the opportunity to work with th em again.

So what do I recommend? I continue to use YahooGroups (as it now is called) for noncommercial purposes, such as to support non-profit organizations or social clubs. It still has the easiest interface, and if you don''t mind the corporate intrusio ns on your messages, it is fine. (Yahoo! has an option to pay to remove much of the advertisements, but they still tack on their own bit in each message footer.) If, on the other hand, you want the best e-mail list processing service and can afford to pay for it, I recommend Listserv and the Ease hosting option at L-Soft. And, if you are cost-conscious and don''t mind wading through some web p ages to set things up, the folks at Dundee have a very reasonable offering.

If you can try out the administrative interfaces before you become a customer, all the better: Everyone has their own particular opinions on what kind of interface makes the most se nse to them. And if you are new to mailing lists and want a great book to get started, I recommend taking a look at Margaret Levine Young and John Levine''s book called "Poor Richard''s Building Online Communities." It covers lots of good information on how to set up mailing lists, including ex planations of some of the more arcane command syntax for Listserv-, Majordomo-, and Listproc-based lists. The book goes into detail about other community-building tools, including newsgroups, IRC, and the legal issues over running your own mailing lists.

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