Stability of email addresses

Massey‘s ITS department have been at it again (see also the comments about their security blunder earlier this year – somewhat patched up now).

Ever since email began, it has been customary for an email address to take the form username@domain – for example, I have a username “ta-meyer” with which I log into Ihug, and so I have an email address ta-meyer@ihug.co.nz. Massey (staff) usernames typically come in the form initial(s)surname (e.g. my name is Tony Andrew Meyer, so my username is “tameyer”). As such, you would expect my Massey email address to be tameyer@massey.ac.nz (just as you find my web page by putting Massey’s address, then a tilde (for ‘home’) then my username, to get http://www.massey.ac.nz/~tameyer).

Until some time in the last week, you would have been right. You could also have used t.a.meyer@massey.ac.nz (note the dots), but it didn’t really make as much sense (“t.a.meyer” is no good as a username, anywhere at Massey), and is more difficult for people to remember. Just recently, however, mail to username@massey.ac.nz (e.g. tameyer@massey.ac.nz) has started to bounce with an “unknown user” error.

So what?

At first glance, this isn’t too much of a problem. Some bureaucrat somewhere likes to have dots in their email (maybe their name is Sam Ted Upid or something <wink>), and decides that it’s too confusing to have more than one valid way to do it (in some ways, a valid point). So we all start using dots more.

The problem is that this is not expected behaviour, and a change from what has worked in the past. As such, there are people who will be using the username@massey.ac.nz form of address to contact people at Massey. All their mail will bounce.

And not just bounce. It will bounce with a “no such user” error, without any indication of why this might be. The thing about email addresses, at least today, is that they need to be stable. That’s why I’m still with Ihug – because I can’t lose my ta-meyer@ihug.co.nz address. Clever people know that they could just do a search with (e.g.) Google and find a valid address for me, but not all people are clever (and somewhat fewer than you might think in an university environment <0.5 wink>).

Worse is that to log in to the email (POP3) server, you need to use your username (i.e. no dots) – the dotted version does not work. This flies in the face of established practice. It’s not a problem for Exchange users, because they authenticate in a whole different way, and that covers the majority of Massey staff, but it will be for others.

Worse, still, is that ITS’s own help pages give instructions for setting up your mail client (e.g. Eudora) that are now just plain wrong! Since you have to log in with your username (no dots), you need to enter in a reply address (with dots) or your return address will just be (as you would expect) username@massey.ac.nz.

The solution

The obvious solution is just to go back to how it was, when the system worked like to expected it to. However, if there’s too much red tape blocking the way (just like you would expect in an university environment), then there was a correct way to go about doing this:

Tell everyone that it’s going to happen, a long time (at least several months) in advance. Someone from the helpdesk told me that they thought that there was notification, and there’s a slim possibility that that’s true. However, I archive all my mail (for work with SpamBayes), and there’s no sign of a message to massey-all or albany-all there. I read Massey News, too, and don’t recall seeing anything there. I even read the notices on the staffroom notice board, and saw nothing there either. Colleagues that I’ve mentioned it to aren’t aware of it either, so it’s not just me. If there was notificiation, it seems pretty likely that it was insufficient.
Enhance the bounce message. At the moment it looks the same as if you emailed madeupaddress3467@massey.ac.nz. The recipient has no idea that the reason their mail is no longer getting through is because of an internal change. All that is required is adding a little note to the bounce message (about 2 minutes work) that explains the situation, and suggests trying the address with dots added in the appropriate positions.

So what am I doing about it?

Well, the first thing that I’m doing is that I’m going to avoid using my Massey address wherever possible. Which means I trawl through all my web pages and change those, and so on. I’ll give out a good address (my gmail tony.meyer@gmail.com address, I expect) to people at conferences, and so on. The Massey system has a not-particularly-good spam filter, so I get to be certain that I avoid that, and a doesn’t-actually-work message release system for blocked messages, and avoiding that will be nice, too. And when I leave Massey in a year and a half, as I almost certainly will, at least there isn’t much mail to follow me.

I contacted the helpdesk about this. I was told that all emails have to use the dotted version, and that someone would be in touch. There’s a slim chance that things might be resolved (as above). If not, then last time the director of ITS told me to take problems to the head of ITS at Albany, so I’ll do that and see if it gets anywhere.

And I suppose I’ll just let those that I know know, so that they can also correct their email addresses, if possible.

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