How to…Get Connected With POP3

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In the small and medium business technology space, there is a crossover point where hosting your own SMTP-based e-mail makes great sense versus utilizing traditional POP3-based e-mail. That should be of no surprise to the readership of this magazine. I realize that I’m preaching to the choir when I’m effectively saying, “E-mail is cool!”

But there are two stories that I want to share about an appropriate use of POP3-based e-mail on a small-business network and how to integrate that approach with the internal LAN-based e-mail store.

However, before engaging in the storytelling, it’s necessary to present a layperson’s definition of the POP3 Connector. The POP3 Connector is a software application that maps POP3-based e-mail to a mail server (in this context, it’s Exchange Server).

Around the World
Quick trivia question: Who is the single largest customer of Microsoft’s Small Business Server (SBS) product in the world? By my calculations, it’s the Peace Corps. A few years ago, I had the honor of helping the Peace Corps roll out SBS to 76 countries. The organization chose SBS because its outposts function very much like stand-alone small businesses, and a WAN scenario is impossible.

At these individual outposts, the e-mail problem was twofold. First, there was an internal need for staff to communicate via e-mail. Second, there was an obvious need to communicate via e-mail with the home office in Washington, D.C., and with other external stakeholders. The first problem was solved using the Exchange-based e-mail functionality resident within SBS. The second problem was solved using the SBS POP3 Connector tool, which I will explain in more detail further along.

Along the way, a third problem was actually solved, and that related to telecommunications costs. In many overseas locations, not only can telephone service be spotty, but it can also be expensive with metered usage. That translates into effective per-minute charges to utilize the Internet, making the real-time nature of the Exchange-native SMTP service very expensive (imagine a full-time connection to the Internet here). The POP3 Connector could be scheduled to ring the ISP at specific intervals (say once per day) to send and receive heaps of e-mails.

SOHO
The second story is about a situation where a sophisticated home-based business serving more than 150,000 customers via e-mail (a successful advisory newsletter) had just migrated from a peer-to-peer network to a brand-spanking-new SBS 2003 network. The business owner wanted to continue using his multiple POP3 accounts because he knew how they worked, and, to some extent, he had an Internet identity tied to those accounts. Perhaps once he knew more about Exchange, he’d be comfortable using its SMTP-based e-mail system. Certainly the POP3 Connector in SBS 2003 could “map” his external e-mail messages to his internal network-based e-mail system, and even his multiple POP3 accounts could be mapped to a single internal account (a many-to one-message-recipient relationship).

The benefit to this individual of not strictly using POP3-based e-mail was that he could exploit the richer feature set of Exchange, including well-known capabilities such as calendaring, contact lists and more. More specifically, it was determined that he needed POP3 e-mail messages from newsletter readers to be routed into public folders for resolution by his editorial staff. I’ll explain more about that capability in a second.

Positioning
There are numerous POP3 Connectors on the market for you to consider using. They all basically behave about the same and provide the types of functionality outlined above. I will present the POP3 Connector that is part of SBS 2003. (In fact, this is the only place it can be acquired.) While Microsoft touts the POP3 Connector as both a permanent and a migration solution, I beg to differ.

The SBS 2003 POP3 Connector is an excellent tool for the following migration situation. You own a newly networked small business and are using existing POP3 e-mail. You’d like to slowly implement SMTP-based e-mail that will provide you with a new Internet identity (using your own registered domain name), but you realize that it will take time to update your buddy list and notify business associates, friends and family that you’re changing your e-mail address. This is a migration using the POP3 Connector in SBS 2003. As a permanent working solution, there is nothing that prevents you from pursuing that strategy, but to be flat-out honest, the feedback has been mixed.

Step-by-Step
Already installed by default, you will access and configure the POP3 Connector using the following steps.

 

 

  1. Log on to SBS 2003 as the Administrator.
  2. Click the Internet and E-mail link in the Server Management console.
  3. Click the Manage POP3 E-mail link.
  4. Click the Open POP3 Connector Manager link.
  5. Select Add on the Mailboxes tab on the POP3 Connector Manager Properties dialog box.
  6. Complete the POP3 Mailbox dialog box that appears, similar to Figure 1. This is core POP3 account information in the top half and Exchange-based e-mail information on the bottom half.
  7. Click OK. You’ll repeat the above procedure as often as needed to add all of the users in your organization who will be subject to the use of the SBS 2003 POP3 Connector.
  8. Next, you will set the mail send-and-receive schedule. Select the Scheduling tab.
  9. By default, the schedule is set to run every hour. However, you can modify it to run as often as every 15 minutes, as seen in Figure 2. There are mixed feelings about the 15-minute minimum. Some believe that it’s unfortunate that you can’t configure the POP3 Connector to retrieve e-mails every minute. Why? What if an important customer sends an equally important e-mail and you don’t get it for a good 15 minutes? This is akin to retrieving really important stock-quote information on mainstream Web sites like CNN or MarketWatch, where there is a minimum 15-minute delay.
  10. Click OK. You may be asked to click OK on a second dialog box to start the Microsoft Connector for POP3 Mailboxes service. Please do so!

 

Figure 1: POP3 Mailbox Dialog Box

Figure 2: Modify the Default Schedule

The rest of the story is easy. Every 15 minutes, POP3 e-mail is downloaded and placed into the Exchange-based SMTP e-mail system.

Public Folders
But back to the story of the newsletter publisher’s home-office setup. In Step 6 above, the Exchange-based e-mail information allowed you to select a bona-fide user who resides in Active Directory and has an SMTP e-mail account within Exchange. However, that drop-down menu does not display public folders as a possible recipient for the incoming POP3 e-mails (even though public folders have SMTP e-mail addresses by default). That’s unfortunate, because the newsletter publisher could really benefit from having e-mail routed directly to the public folders.

So, how did we do it? Simply create a dummy user that receives the incoming POP3 connector e-mail, and then forward that e-mail to the public folder. It’s not an ideal solution, but it is practical and functional. Hopefully, in a future POP3 Connector revision, this will be fixed.

This month, you learned about how to integrate two types of e-mail together to solve potential business communication problems or to provide more functionality to a small business!

SBS author Harry Brelsford writes extensively on small and medium business technology matters, leads workshops and hosts the SMB Nation conference (www.smbnation.com).

 

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