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Pity the Modern Mail Administrator

In a sense, the mail administrator's job hasn't changed much since the first days of E-mail. The mail system has worked more or less the same way, after all, for many years. Issues such as E-mail address management, mail routing, mail storage management, and dealing with mail queues and delivery failures are nothing new to the experienced E-mail admin.

On the other hand, the once-trusting E-mail system has had to become much more paranoid, thanks to both viruses and spam. Ten years ago it was common for MTAs to relay mail for anyone and everyone—it was a courtesy provided by well-connected sites to their poorer cousins who couldn't afford a full-time connection to the Internet. As spammers began taking advantage of these open relays to spew their mailings at the expense of others, that relaying practice quickly fell out of favor. Today, an open relay is considered a security problem, and it's enough to get a site blacklisted until the relay is properly secured. Oh, how times change.

The spam problem has reached such epidemic proportions that it's now a necessity to do some sort of E-mail blocking or filtering. That responsibility is a relatively new one to E-mail administrators, who had previously been concerned mostly with connectivity and delivery issues. Today, an E-mail administrator is expected to understand what a naïve Bayesian classifier is, and in general terms how it works. She's expected to know what DNS Block Lists (DNSBLs) are, how they work, and how to judge which ones are appropriate to use for her organization's needs. A modern mail administrator needs to be aware of emerging anti-spam technologies such as Sender Policy Framework (SPF), Microsoft's Caller-ID for E-mail, and Yahoo!'s Domain Keys.

Content filtering is another relatively new task for mail administrators to worry about. At one time it was considered a gross invasion of privacy for a mail administrator to poke his nose into users' E-mail. The same filters that quarantine spam and viruses, though, are now being used to enforce corporate E-mail policies regarding profanity and sensitive content. In fact, in certain industries it's now a legal requirement that all E-mail be archived for a certain amount of time, in case company auditors or federal regulators need to review it as part of an investigation.

On the flip side, today's E-mail administrators often have to deal with other E-mail administrators to work out routing issues. Aside from answering common user questions ("Why did my mail bounce?"), mail administrators have to turn to one another to ask "Why is mail from my network being blocked by yours?" Perhaps your E-mail server's IP address or even your entire domain or address block has been listed in a DNSBL for some reason that you now have to investigate—and resolve, usually by proving your innocence to the DNSBL's maintainer. Or perhaps the receiving site just has a particularly aggressive spam filter that's getting in the way, and you need to figure out what aspect of your users' mail is setting it off.

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