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Moving Our Lists

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- 2000.08.03 - Tip Jar

One of the first resources I discovered with Internet email - way back in my AOL days - was mailing lists: lists about religion, computers, trading cards, disabilities, and pretty much anything else under the sun.

As a Mac user, I found email lists about Classic Macs and Power Macs, but not a single list about the Quadras. So I found a great freeware program called Macjordomo, set up some mailboxes on my reformed.net server, and launched Quadlist in November 1997. It soon becaming a leading technical resource for Quadra owners - and a lot of Mac users with newer or older Macs.

In June 1998 I spun off four daughter lists (Vintage Macs, PowerBooks, PowerMacs, and SuperMacs) along with two new lists: MacInSchool and the first iMac email list. Over time that has grown; today Low End Mac operates about 20 email lists covering everything from the Apple2 and Lisa through the G3, G4, and Cube.

These lists have proved themselves some of the most helpful resources on the Net, along with a complementary set of elists run by The Macintosh Guy.

Problems

Running my own mail server and list server was fine. Well, it was up until about a month ago. Then the problems started.

In June we got AT&T @Home cable modem service. It was incredible - at first. I'd been using ISDN, which is expensive ($55 per month for two phone lines plus ISP fees) and only moderately fast (2-4x faster than a 56k modem).

The @Home service agreement says no servers, so I moved reformed.net to AfterHours Consulting and finally set up email addresses at lowendmac.net. With all these lists, Macjordomo kept my SuperMac J700 pretty busy. In fact, I eventually decided to use a Quadra 650 to handle some of the smaller lists and a Quadra 605 to run the Australian list (I even set it to Perth's time zone so digests would have a local time stamp).

Right about the time I called Ameritech to discontinue ISDN service, the problems with cable modem access began. My connection would be down for minutes or hours at a time. AT&T @Home support always had the same answer, "It's a node problem. We don't know when it will be resolved."

For the past month, it's been a nightmare running the email lists, since the list server was unable to access the mail server most of the time. The backlog on some lists would get well past 50 messages.

Solutions

The ideal solution would be a better Internet connection. The day I learned Earthlink was offering DSL locally, I placed my order. It hasn't come yet; I have no idea if it will come this week or next month. But when it comes, AT&T @Home is losing my business. (You'd think the people who managed the telephone network for decades would find this a piece of cake.)

Without a reliable Internet connection, I investigated Microsoft's lists and eLists. Because of the volume on my lists, the MSN solution would have broke me. And eLists didn't seem to offer the level of control I wanted.

In computing, the best solutions are often Mac-based; that was the case here. I got an email from Joe Ryan about MacLists, a free email list service run by MacLaunch, a Mac-centric portal. Not only would my lists be handled by a Mac service, they would be run on a Mac OS X Server with Stalker CommuniGate Pro.

Now I'm familiar with Stalker. I've been using their free SIMS (Stalker Internet Mail Server) at home and work for years. It's rock solid and has a zillion anti-spam features. CommuniGate is the pro version of SIMS.

One thing CommuniGate adds to the mix is the ability to run email lists right on the list server. No more running one program to access another. And the list settings gave me more control over list processing than I had with Macjordomo. (Don't get me wrong: Macjordomo is an incredible freeware program. If not for Internet access issues, I would have continued using it.)

MacLaunch chose CommuniGate to handle their free email service and their free mailing list service, MacLaunch. List managers have lots of control over their lists, choosing whether to offer digests, how often they will be created, setting up headers and footers for the list, etc. List members can sign up via email or MacList's Web site.

Joe Ryan tells me the mail server has 100 Mbps of upstream bandwidth, which should be plenty to handle almost anything you can throw at it. The server has 24 hours of standby power and redundant environmental controls. It looks like they've planned for every eventuality.

The Move

I was skeptical. I like running my own servers. I like that level of control. So I tried one list first, just to try out the system.

Quadlist is my oldest list, one of the busier ones, and has a pretty high level of tech savvy members. So that's where I started.

Creating the list was easy. There's a link on the MacLaunch home page for creating your own mailing list. Just fill out the form and wait for email confirmation. Then print out the manual, which is 16 pages long.

MacLists offers pretty much any setting you can imagine. You can create closed lists which only subscribers can post to, announcement lists that only you or a select few can post to, or open lists that are susceptible to spam. You can let anyone subscribe, manage subscriptions manually, or require subscribers to verify their email address.

Subscribers can get individual messages, a digest, or an index. Content can be read via email or on the Web - and the list is searchable via the Web. Unlike Macjordomo, which lets me tell the digest to go out once per day or when it reaches a certain size, CommuniGate Pro lets me send out a digest daily unless it reaches 30K in size or contains 20 messages. Whichever qualification is met first determines when the digest goes out.

All of those are great features, but a list manager's nightmare is bounces. I've spent hours each week dealing with bounces; now CommuniGate Pro does it for me! I'm absolutely blown away by that.

Best of all, because the same program handles email and lists, messages are sent out almost instantly. I've never worked with a list server as responsive as this.

Late last week I began setting up all my lists on MacLists, copying the list headers and footers, tweaking the digest settings, etc. Then I spent several days notifying members of my lists that they'd have to subscribe to the new lists; if not, they'd get lost in the transfer. (Macjordomo does not allow exporting subscriber lists with information on feed vs. digest mode, nor could I get CommuniGate Pro to import a list of subscribers, so I had no choice but to let the users do it themselves.)

As of Tuesday evening, the new lists were all live. I'd given everyone several days to subscribe and just had to hope for the best. The moved lists are active, along with some new ones.

Starting late Tuesday, I turned off the lists one by one as they sent their last message from "Mom." I'm no longer running Macjordomo on any of my three former list servers. I'm no longer checking several times each day to see if they've bombed due to an inability to access mailboxes. I'm no longer frustrated running 20 lists, although I remain frustrated with AT&T @Home.

I don't know how MacLaunch can offer MacLists for free, but I'm very grateful for the service. I'm gladly running a "hosted by MacLists" note at the bottom of each list posting - that's all they ask.

Hats off to MacLaunch for an invaluable service!

And if you're looking for a good list or two covering the Mac, we've got quite a selection on our List Index.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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