List Server Roundup: The Key Players

Thursday May 24th 2001 by ServerWatch Staff
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In part two of this two-part tutorial, we examine the four leading mailing list server products: Listserv, ListProc, ListManager, and Majordomo, from the perspective of where these products fit in the list server market.

The original version of Listserv, quite a few incarnations prior to its current state, was introduced in 1981 on the BITNET network. It lays claim to being the first list server available (besides human labor). While Listserv and ListProc were the two main, freely available list server packages for the subsequent decade, the scene went commercial in the mid-1990s.

Of the four products we will discuss, only Majordomo and ListProc v6.0 are entirely free for use -- newer versions of ListProc are commercial. Because ListProc v6.0 is quite old at this point, Majordomo remains the only major, actively developed free list server available. Some will even estimate that it is the most widely used list server of all.

Installation of ListProc requires full administrative privileges to the serving machine ("root access", in Unix lingo). A number of preparatory steps are required to install ListProc, including created a dedicated account for the ListProc server to run under and a mail alias that sends commands to ListProc. The latter presumes the presence of a mail transport agent (such as sendmail) that will execute commands associated with aliases.

The installation documentation outlines these and other necessary steps, but unfortunately, also makes frequent reference to additional documents, with some statements like, "be sure to read section X of document Y," and other statements like, "be sure to ignore section P of document Q." Some of the documentation is included with the ListProc download, and some is on the CREN Web site. A cautious installation of ListProc will first require the supporting documentation to be collected and read.

ListProc includes a simple Web-based access and management interface called lp-web. The interface is accessed through a Web browser and implemented in Perl scripts that must be run as CGI through a Web server. Although CREN has tested only lp-web with the Apache Web server, any Web server with CGI support should work. Ideally, lp-web should be run through a dedicated Web server, meaning that it should listen on a different port from any "normal" Web server running on the same machine.

A ListProc license includes one year of free technical support. However, CREN provides direct technical support to only the site administrators; list owners and subscribers must turn to their ListProc site administrators for support.

ListProc
Latest Version8.2.09
URLhttp://www.listproc.net/index.html
Platforms SupportedAIX 4.2.0, BSDI 2.1, BSDI 4.0, Compaq Tru64 4.0d, FreeBSD 2.2.8, HP-UX (9.0 only), RedHat Linux 5.1, 6+, and Solaris 2.5.1 and 2.7
StatusCommercialware: $2,000 for nonprofit and government organizations; $2,475 for for-profit businesses; includes source code

Majordomo's installation procedure, like ListProc's, involves a number of steps. Some of them must be performed with root access. The especially important details with a package like Majordomo are security and permissions. Majordomo's installation document warns that the typical installation procedure is not secure, and one must consult the Majordomo FAQ for a detailed look at how to secure the list server. Proper file permissions are also critical to ensure security and allow the list server access to the files it needs. Majordomo, like ListProc, is best installed by someone familiar with Unix.

It is here, however, that the similarities pretty much end. Whereas ListProc is designed as a large application supporting many functions, Majordomo is a modular collection of smaller tools. The latter approach is beneficial if there are tools that are not needed and whose omission can save resources. On the other hand, because Majordomo is written in Perl, a list server with heavy traffic may experience resource penalties due to the Perl overhead across many invocations.

While Majordomo is primarily a text-based system with subscriber and administration commands sent as e-mail messages to the list server, several graphic front ends have been contributed by developers. Most prominent among them is MajorCool, which is primarily a Majordomo administration interface (rather than a subscriber interface) for managing subscriptions and viewing/searching list archives. Subscriber-oriented interfaces include LWGate and MailServ.

Because the server is basically a collection of tools, putting together a Majordomo installation with the desired access tools is something of an adventure. Also, as it is a free product, there is no central support authority. Distributed support resources do abound though, including the detailed Majordomo FAQ and O'Reilly & Associates' book, Managing Mailing Lists.

Majordomo
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L-Soft also markets a "Lite" version of Listserv (the full version is called "Classic"). The Lite flavor is free for noncommercial use for 10 mailing lists with up to 500 subscribers each; beyond that, a pricing scheme applies. Among its limitations, the Lite version lacks some of the advanced management features of the Classic, such as spam filters, per-list templates, and database support.

Like ListProc and unlike Majordomo, Listserv is a full-sized monolithic application. Unlike ListProc, Listserv does not include source code but rather precompiled binaries, even for Unix platforms. Also unlike ListProc and Majordomo, Listserv is available and easily installed on Windows machines in addition to those sporting Unix.

In addition to real-time and digest delivery, Listserv supports Web-based list archives with sophisticated searching and an "index" delivery mode, which is similar to the periodic summaries of a digest mode, except without full message bodies (these can be retrieved on demand).

Windows installation does, like its Unix counterparts, require a number of prerequisites. L-Soft notes that the user must have administrator privileges and strongly recommends running Listserv from an NTFS formatted partition. Configuration of Listserv under Windows is begun with an amenable graphical interface from which the user can set up vital data, as well as advanced features, including a Web-based searchable list archive.

Listserv also provides Web-based tools for subscribers, making it easy for individuals to point and click to subscribe to available lists and make choices, such as which delivery mode to use.

For list owners, there is a list management Web interface through which owners can manage subscriber information, modify the layout and appearance of the subscriber Web interface, and execute batch (or bulk) operations, for example adding or removing lists of subscribers.

Server administrators can use Listserv's Web-based administration page to modify sitewide issues, including creating new lists and default Web templates for all lists.

Listserv's heavy reliance on Web-based access for nearly all management tools makes it very amenable to remote administration, whether from a server admin several floors down or a list owner on another continent. On the other hand, Listserv relies on an external Web server (e.g., Microsoft IIS or Apache) to serve the administration functions, and L-Soft recommends that the Web server and Listserv server run on the same machine. This may raise resource or security concerns in certain environments.

L-Soft also provides an outsourcing service for Listserv through which the vendor will host a customer's list server. The organization can manage Listserv remotely via Web-based administration tools. Outsourcing, while an added cost, can entirely relieve an organization of having to install and maintain a server for its mailing lists.

ListServ
Latest Version1.94.5
URLhttp://www.greatcircle.com/majordomo/
Platforms SupportedAll Unix-based systems
StatusFree for most uses, except commercial reselling
Latest Version1.8e
URLhttp://www.lsoft.com/download/default.asp?item=overview
Platforms SupportedUnix-based systems, VMS, VM, Windows NT/2000, Windows 95/98/ME
StatusCommercialware: Downloadable evaluation version available; a "Lite" version is also available, with a feature subset, free for small list volume; prices go up to $2,000 for heavier list volumes

ListManager is aimed at the entire list server market, starting with a free version that supports 50 mailing lists with up to 200 subscribers apiece. The product is then tiered through many pricing levels that range in the cap on subscribers per list and the peak messages per hour performance of the server engine. There's a big jump between the Gold level (which limits lists to 2,000 subscribers each for $1,500) and the Titanium level (which allows 50,000 subscribers per list) for $3000. Both levels support 10,000 messages per hour. Like a movie theater pricing its popcorn, Lyris seems to want to convince an enterprise looking at a medium size product to consider a large.

Whereas ListProc, Majordomo, and Listserv rely on external mail transport agents (e.g., sendmail or qmail for Unix) to handle receipt of e-mail, ListManager includes its own SMTP daemon. While this is simple for machines with no mail transport agents of their own, machines already running SMTP delivery must be tweaked to coexist with ListManager. The easiest tweaks are to configure the default mail transport agent (such as sendmail) to forward list messages onto ListManager's daemon or to move sendmail to a nondefault port and configure ListManager to forward nonlist e-mail over to sendmail.

Lyris is unambiguous in its dislike of spam, and ListManager is deliberately designed to be unhelpful for those wishing to use it to produce and disseminate spam. ListManager uses a "double opt-in" subscription model that requires subscribers to confirm their e-mail addresses before being added to a list. This prevents a spammer from unilaterally adding addresses to a one-way distribution list.

ListManager includes Web-based message delivery accessible by either list subscribers or guests. An add-on product called MultiView supports Usenet-based message delivery, allowing subscribers to read lists using newsreader software.

Full Web-based administration access is available, and, unlike L-Soft, Lyris encourages users to run the Web tools on a different server. Although all administration functions are available via the Web interface, ListManager also accepts commands and understands the syntax of ListProc, Majordomo, and Listserv. The ListManager installation also includes Apache Web server for machines without a Web server.

While ListManager does not include source code the way ListProc does, it does provide a programmer's API for customized extension of the list server.

Like L-Soft, Lyris offers an outsourcing service so organization may choose ListManager's features without having to install it on their own servers.

Lyris ListManager
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From a server management standpoint, Listserv and ListManager are more accessible than ListProc and Majordomo for users most comfortable in graphic interfaces. Those preferring text configuration files will be least interested in ListManager.

Subscribers may also feel most comfortable with Listserv and ListManager's tools, as they make it easy to search message archives and manage subscription/unsubscription requests without confusion.

Majordomo is best suited for those seeking flexible list management in a community-supported technology. Optimum performance is not a top priority, and user contributions ensure a variety of Web-based interfaces from which to choose.

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Latest Version4.1
URLhttp://www.lyris.com/products/listmanager/
Platforms SupportedWindows 95/98/NT/2000, Linux for Intel with Kernel at least 2.2.12-20 (RedHat 6.1), FreeBSD 4.0 or later, Solaris 2.51, 2.6, 7, 8
StatusCommercialwarre: Downloadable evaluation version available; free version with limited lists; tiered versions that scale up in list size and server speed range from $500 (Silver) to $30,000 (Extreme)