Is the Cloud Your Best Option?

We receive a lot of questions from customers regarding using SmarterMail “in the Cloud.” Most often the questions revolve around using Amazon’s EC2 platform, but we also get questions about using Microsoft Azure, installing on virtual private servers and more. This blog post will answer those questions, as well as answer a more pertinent one: While it IS possible to install SmarterMail “in the Cloud,” the more pressing question is “SHOULD you install it in the Cloud?”

So, to put the initial question to rest, you CAN install SmarterMail on Amazon EC2 as long as you get an elastic IP address that you can map to the ports required for SmarterMail and select an Instance that will give you enough i/o. Regarding Microsoft Azure, it’s not recommended since, at least for now, Microsoft doesn’t offer a static IP. As for installing on a VPS, that’s fine as well and we have countless customers successfully running SmarterMail on VPS instances around the world.

So now that we know that you CAN install SmarterMail in the cloud, let’s look at SHOULD you do it. While Cloud computing certainly affords flexibility and scalability, especially when referencing things like EC2 and Azure, those can come at a price. However, there are other things to consider when looking at moving something like SmarterMail to EC2 or other provider.

First things first, a mail server is VERY i/o intensive. It is almost constantly reading and writing data as new mail comes into and goes out of the spool, as people check their email, etc. Unfortunately, spam plays a role in that, but so does a lot of legitimate email. In addition, people generally are checking mail from multiple devices: desktop clients, webmail, smartphones and tablets, etc. When you realize that most mail servers will have thousands of people on them – all doing the same thing at essentially the same time – you can imagine the pounding hard drives take. Cloud providers will generally allow you to set up disks in a way to maximize i/o – EC2 even offers a disk-intensive Instance for applications that do lots and lots of random disk reads and writes – but to efficiently set that up can significantly affect your pricing.

Then there is having to deal with moving a pre-built piece of software to a cloud environment. Ideally, if you’re going to use something like EC2 or Microsoft Azure you should your application is such as way as to take full advantage of those platforms. Many of the sites and applications that use these infrastructures were built specifically FOR those infrastructures. Not every application out there fits the Cloud model, either structurally or, more importantly, financially. Scalability is great but just like disk i/o, it can come at a cost.

Regardless of those caveats, we tasked one of our IT administrators with reviewing the costs associated with setting up our own SmarterMail installation across several different services, including Amazon EC2 as well as some VPS and dedicated solutions offered by a few of our partners. Below you will find the results. Now, it’s worth mentioning that this is how OUR installation would be managed and set up for the domains and users we have in our SmarterMail installation. Your mileage, and costs, may vary. In addition, information was taken directly from the links provided and while most companies offer discounts for paying in advance, the monthly costs were included for the sake of simplicity.

Base Configuration

All of the solutions listed below AT LEAST meet these base configurations, or come close:
Minimum Dual Core 2.4GHz CPU
6GB RAM
180GB SATA 6 SSD, 800 mbps, attached – RAID 10 preferred
Nightly backup/snapshots with retention

Cloud/VPS Services

Amazon EC2 “i2.xlarge” General Purpose Instance

COST: $845.26 monthly (pro-rated based on the day the Instance was created)

AppliedI Large Windows Cloud Server

COST: $249.95 monthly

Hostek Business VPS

COST: $99.95 monthly

Dedicated Servers

Newtek Quad Core Server

COST: $189.95 monthly

HostMySite Windows Value Server

COST: $149.00 monthly

HostGator Standard Dedicated Server

COST: $219.00 monthly

ServerSilo DIY Server Standard

COST: $149.00 monthly

So, what does this tell us? Well, first of all, prices and configurations vary quite a bit across different providers. Of course, price is dictated by a number of factors: hardware quality, processor and memory type, network speed, quality of service and much, much more. As you can see, pricing for the storage-optimized EC2 instance is substantially more expensive that VPS options from others, much less dedicated servers. All that being said, which option is the one we’d choose?

Asking our resident expert, the IT admin to whom we gave the task, he said the following:

“I’d prefer going with a dedicated server. While this may be a bit counterintuitive to the way the world is heading, the logic is sound: I want to know what my constraints are with regards to configuration. That means I know my memory and disk limits and can plan accordingly. That means I know that if something goes sideways – a spammer gets loose on one of our domains, we’re hit with a dDos, one of our accounts gets compromised – I know we won’t be facing a huge bill or a sharp increase in our cost due to an increase in data or CPU or memory that blow our base configuration out. Having a certainty gives me more confidence than having the scalability provided by most cloud services and providers.”

As for the million dollar question: “Which company would you choose?” He is a bit more coy. “The best hosting company is the best hosting company FOR YOU. There are a lot of great companies out there, it’s up to the person doing the research to make the best decision based on their needs and experience. Luckily, I don’t’ have that worry as we host things ourselves.”

So, what are your thoughts? Is “the Cloud” worth it? Are scalability and flexibility worth the potential for cost spikes due to issues that always seem to arise when running a company on the Web?

SmarterStats 9.x BETA Now Live

We’re excited to announce the BETA of the next version of our popular business analytics product: SmarterStats 9.x. Over the last few major releases we focused on providing a Web interface for SmarterStats that administrators and end users would find as simple as it was powerful. With this latest release, we kept the same look and appearance but rewrote the underlying architecture with the latest Internet technologies to dramatically improve the speed, reduce the size and increase compatibility with all the latest Internet browsers and tablets. In addition, SmarterStats 9.x brings several server side optimizations and fixes that continue to make SmarterStats compatible with the latest Internet trends.

As with all releases, we worked closely with customers and partners and while we couldn’t incorporate everyone’s ideas into this release, we prioritized our users’ wants to create a new version of SmarterStats that we think you’ll really like.

So let’s take a look at what’s new…

New Interactive Charts

Visitor Trend ReportPresentation of data has always been a strong point of SmarterStats, and the new charting engine we’ve introduced takes that presentation to a more interactive, and much better performing, level.

Rather than just pretty pictures, you will actually be able to mouseover chart items and see what the data represents! You can select points on line charts or sections of pie charts and clearly see what the data points represent, what they tell you and then use that information and act upon the data. No more looking at a point, scanning the legend or having to work out where that point falls in the x/y axes of your chart. The interactive data almost makes the actual data sets irrelevant…almost! The new charts display much faster and require fewer resources without sacrificing quality and the responsive design means that reports will adjust to fit your browser window without disrupting the flow of information!

Incredible Performance Increase

With every major product release we always look for ways to improve the performance of our software. With SmarterStats 9.x, we’ve been able to greatly reduce system resource usage when processing log files and in the presentation of data. This is due to both changes we’ve made on the back end as well as the move to the new charting engine. Single site users will notice the difference – the faster processing and display of data – but enterprise users will definitely see how much faster data processes and the vast decrease in system resources, specifically the decrease in memory usage. The changes made to SmarterStats are possibly the highest performance and efficiency improvements we’ve ever been able to achieve with a release!

Continued Support for the Latest Devices and Platforms

Operating system versionsAs always, a lot of time is spent on each major release adapting SmarterStats to understand all the latest operating systems, applications, devices and platforms new to the Internet.  As SmarterStats adjusts to understand the ever-evolving Internet, you will get the most detailed and accurate business metrics for your business.

Knowing the browsers, operating systems, platforms and devices being used by website visitors is an integral part of continual improvement on the Web, and the continued success of your online presence. SmarterStats 9.x now gives you better insight into these metrics by including newer devices such as the different Kindle Fire tablets being sold as well as more modern devices such as Google Glass. As for operating systems, Windows 8 users can be seen and SmarterTrack even keeps tabs on the many flavors of Android out in the wild.

Sharing Data is Easier

The ability to share data with others is an integral part of using SmarterStats. With SmarterStats 9.x we’ve made it even easier for webmasters, marketing specialists or even business owners to share their website statistics, SEO reports and more. For example, it’s now possible to export report items as PDF files. Each PDF file is a standalone report, complete with title page and neatly formatted data that can easily be used in business meetings or as part of marketing proposals. In addition, scheduled email reports can now also be sent as PDF files rather than inline HTML-based reports. This is ideal for sharing data with others for use on-the-go or for those times when HTML emails aren’t readily accessible.

Smarter Importing of Log Files

System Administrators generally have monitors that check disk space availability on the servers under their control so that they can be alerted when hard drives begin to fill up. To complement that vigilance, SmarterStats now handles situations where disk drives have less space than necessary for storing log file data. This means that SmarterStats will no longer FTP log files or save configuration data to disk drives with low disk space thereby eliminating potential service issues, file corruption and more.

Getting Started with the BETA

To get your hands on the BETA simply visit the SmarterTools BETA release forum, where you’ll see how to:

  • Sign up for the BETA

  • Get a special BETA license key

  • Download the latest BETA release (we update it regularly)

  • Communicate with other BETA testers and the SmarterTools development team

  • Stay up-to-date on the latest release note and BETA news

Sign up for the BETA

 

SmarterMail 12.x BETA Now Available

We’re excited to announce the BETA of the next version of our popular Windows mail server: SmarterMail 12.x. Over the last few major releases we focused on providing an incredibly powerful and user friendly Web interface that users would enjoy.  With this latest release, we kept the same look and appearance but rewrote the underlying architecture with the latest Internet technologies to dramatically improve the speed, reduce the size and increase compatibility with all the latest Internet browsers and tablets.

In addition, SmarterMail 12.x brings several new features, server side optimizations and fixes that continues to make SmarterMail compatible with the latest Internet trends.  As with all releases, we worked closely with customers and partners and while we couldn’t incorporate everyone’s ideas into this release, we prioritized our users’ wants to create a new version of SmarterMail that we think you’ll really like.

So let’s take a look at what’s new…

Improved Text Editor Throughout

A new text editor means that users have the tools they need to create richly formatted emails, without a lot of unnecessary code in the background. Cleaner code can help keep delivery, receipt and viewing of emails fast and efficient. Cleaner code also allows for greater flexibility when changing how a particular email looks as it’s easier for a Web designer to go into the code directly to make changes without relying solely on the design tools offered in the editor. In addition, the editor is now included when adding Notes and creating Tasks in SmarterMail, meaning that users can format key elements such as addresses, highlight important points, include links to Web pages or addresses, and more. Having a rich text editor available when creating Tasks and Notes increases the functionality and improves the overall experience when using these features.

Connect and Share Using Google Drive

SmarterMail’s File Storage makes it easy to share large files without having to worry about hitting any attachment limits or adding large files to your recipients’ inboxes. SmarterMail 12.x takes file storage to the next level with the ability to connect your SmarterMail account to your Google Drive account. With this connection, you’re then able to link to files either using SmarterMail’s built in file storage or to files you’ve stored in your Google Drive account. Even better – you don’t have to manage the permissions for your Google Drive files as SmarterMail will automatically modify the file share so that anyone with access to your linked file can easily open it, view it or work with it! Best of all? More connected services are on the horizon…

Greater Support for IPv6

While earlier versions of SmarterMail offered support for IPv6, SmarterMail 12.x increases the functionality available to System Administrators. For example, IPv6 is now supported in greylisting, IP whitelisting and blacklisting, SMTP authentication bypass, SPF checks and more. In addition, system admins can include IPv6 addresses when setting up abuse detection rules for things like DoS, bad SMTP harvesting and password brute force.

Increased Spam Management

Knowing when a mail server is listed by one of the realtime black lists (RBL) used by SmarterMail used to be a manual process. SmarterMail 12.x now includes an automatic RBL checker that lets you know if your server is actively blacklisted. System administrators can even set up system events that will immediately notify them if a server becomes listed by a RBL, which means that they can quickly act if a server does become listed.

It’s Easier to Move to SmarterMail

SmarterTools has always made it easy for end users and administrators to move mailboxes over to SmarterMail, regardless of whether they’re moving from a competing mail server or from any one of the most popular mail services. With SmarterMail 12.x, we’ve added some features to make it even easier. For example, it’s now possible to import users at the domain level, and automatically apply any domain defaults to them on import. In addition, system administrators can see any and all migrations that are occurring, in real time. Finally, it’s now possible to stop and restart migrations right from the migration wizard.

Huge Number of Optimizations and Improvements

With each successive major version of SmarterMail that is released, we do our best to include a large number of back-end improvements to help keep mail servers performing at their best. Many of these changes are in the back-end code, so they’re not easily seen by end users, much less by system administrators, except when they notice how much better SmarterMail runs. Some of the changes in SmarterMail 12.x include improved processing of HTML messages, leading to messages being processed much faster. There’s an improved code structure to speed up startup and reduce overall resource usage, and we’ve also improved remoting calls, leading to improved performance for webmail users.

Is that all?

Of course not! SmarterMail 12.x has many more features and improvements. You’ll find them in the release notes we’ll post in the SmarterMail 12.x BETA forum, but here are a few more that might be of interest:

  • Contact pictures now displayed on the view message page of webmail so you can see who you’re talking to
  • Improved support for IE 11 and Windows 8.1
  • Improved support for Exchange ActiveSync
  • Users can also add a picture of themselves to their signature lines
  • Administrators can now add comments to global trusted senders. This is ideal for installations with multiple system administrators
  • End users can now delete specific instances of a recurring appointment in webmail
  • Users can now download all attachments to a message in one zip file

Getting started with the BETA

To get your hands on the BETA simply visit the SmarterTools BETA release forum, where you’ll see how to:

  • Sign up for the BETA
  • Get a special BETA license key
  • Download the latest BETA release (we update it regularly)
  • Communicate with other BETA testers and the SmarterTools development team
  • Stay up-to-date on the latest release note and BETA news

Sign up for the BETA

SmarterTrack 10.x BETA Now Available

We’re excited to announce the BETA of the next version of our popular help desk: SmarterTrack 10.x. Over the last few major releases we focused on providing a Web interface for SmarterTrack that agents, managers, administrators and end users would find as simple as it was powerful.  With this latest release, we kept the same look and appearance for the management side of things, but but rewrote the underlying architecture with the latest Internet technologies to dramatically improve the speed, reduce the size and increase compatibility with all the latest Internet browsers and tablets. On the customer side of things? Well, check below for what improvements you can expect.

In addition, SmarterTrack 10.x brings several new features, server side optimizations and fixes that continues to make SmarterTrack compatible with the latest Internet trends.  As with all releases, we worked closely with customers and partners and while we couldn’t incorporate everyone’s ideas into this release, we prioritized our users’ wants to create a new version of SmarterTrack that we think you’ll really like.

So let’s take a look at what’s new…

Introducing the SmarterTrack Community

Having a centralized location to communicate with customers and end users is key to any business. With that in mind, SmarterTrack 10.x introduces a new Community area. The new Community can replace existing customer communities, like forums or other services that are designed to allow users to interact with each other, as well as communicate with you and your agents. The SmarterTrack Community allows users to post comments and suggestions, ask questions or offer other feedback, and even has a voting system where users can vote up or down things like feature requests or answers to questions.

When creating a new Community thread, users can specify whether a specific thread is a Question, an Idea or a general Discussion item. Community threads are fully searchable and search engine friendly, adding an additional layer of search engine optimization to your customer portal. In addition, Community threads are organized using a simple tab structure so that the Most Recent or any Unanswered threads are easily found, and users can organize threads by score or even see their own activity when they’re logged in. When coupled with the included Knowledge Base, the Community provides users with a full complement of self-help resources to find answers to questions, interact with others and truly centralize all of your customer communication into one area.

Redesigned Customer Portal

Completely redesigned, from the ground up, the customer portal in SmarterTrack 10.x offers users a streamlined, modern and more organized interface. Built with a responsive layout, the new portal scales well to any sized desktop browser and even looks great on tablets, phablets and smartphones while significantly decreasing the footprint and page load times. Not only does the new portal look great, it’s also faster and much more agile.

Features such as custom links are still available, and the new search feature allows users to search for knowledge base articles, community posts and even news items right from the front page. Each section of the portal is easily accessible and laid out on the homepage so that all of your important information is right in front of your customers. Using External Feeds, you can even tie in your blog or other RSS feeds so that pertinent industry news, informative articles and items from any other resource are readily available.

End users, agents and administrators can all log in quickly, and a new notification system allows agents and admins to see when certain items require attention. For example, if there are broken links in any KB articles or news items or if any feedback was left on an article. Speaking of KB articles, agents who have permissions to manage articles can easily edit articles right from the portal, to ensure information is as up-to-date as possible.

With the new layout, simpler navigation and a more responsive design, the SmarterTrack portal is truly your new hub for consolidating all customer communication into one area.

Improved Text Editor Throughout

A new text editor means that users have the tools they need to create richly formatted messages, without a lot of unnecessary code in the background. Cleaner code can help keep delivery, receipt and viewing of tickets fast and efficient. In addition, the editor is also included for creating knowledge base articles and canned replies, meaning that users can format key elements such as addresses, highlight important points, include links to Web pages or addresses, easily insert images and more. The new editor is more efficient, more accurate and creates much better-looking, and faster performing, back end code.

Better Transparency and Management of Surveys

Knowing what your customers and end users think about you, your product or service, or the level of support they’re receiving is key to offering the best service possible. With SmarterTrack’s flexible survey system, you were already able to create virtually any type of survey, with a number of different question types, and attach those surveys to your tickets and live chats. With SmarterTrack 10.x, your ability to actually see the results of those surveys is greatly improved. For example, each ticket and live chat now has a Survey tab that will display the survey and the score the agent received. Double clicking on the survey brings it up in a new window, so you can easily view the survey, the answers and the ticket or live chat. In addition, survey ratings are now displayed in the ticket and live chat header so agents can see how they rated when a survey is completed and admins can use custom text for survey links and add those links to Group and/or Department signatures. Transparency is key to keeping tabs on the level of service and support being provided, and SmarterTrack 10.x delivers.

Improved Search Engine and Social Engagement

One of the many benefits of SmarterTrack is it’s SEO-friendly nature. Between knowledge base articles and news items, not to mention the new Community, SmarterTrack can further assist businesses with their search engine strategy and social interaction. SmarterTrack 10.x improves in many of these areas. For example, sitemaps are now automatically generated via the site’s Robots.txt file. In addition, social sharing options have been updated to include sites like Google+ and LinkedIn, and the entire social sharing piece was re-written to be much easier to manage. Finally, extensible schema tags were added to portal content, allowing for better search engine indexing and SEO. While this last change may not be entirely noticeable, it is a big change that has significant positive impact for SmarterTrack users.

Large Number of Additional Optimizations and Improvements

With each successive major version of SmarterTrack that is released, we do our best to include a large number of back-end improvements to help keep mail servers performing at their best. Many of these changes are in the back-end code, so they’re not easily seen by end users, much less by system administrators, except when they notice how much better SmarterTrack runs. Some of the changes in SmarterTrack 10.x include improved processing of HTML messages, leading to both incoming and outgoing messages being processed much faster. There’s an improved code structure to speed up startup and reduce overall resource usage, and we’ve also improved Who’s On so that there is less load on CPU and memory.

Is That All?

Of course not! SmarterTrack 10.x has many more features and improvements. You’ll find them in the release notes we’ll post in the SmarterTrack 10.x BETA forum, but here are a few more that might be of interest:

  • A “Download All” button has been added to the attachments tab allowing the agent to download all attachments at once as a zip file.
  • If a ticket fails to send, the spool will automatically try to send it again. After repeated failed attempts, over a 24 hour span, the ticket will be re-opened with a comment added explaining that the last message failed to send so agents can look into the issue.
  • When a KB article is deleted, it’s now possible to redirect people searching for that article to a new, or updated, article. This saves SEO and search time for users.
  • Several optimizations to code structure, allowing for faster startup and reduced resource usage.

Getting started with the BETA

To get your hands on the BETA simply visit the SmarterTools BETA forum area, where you’ll see how to:

  • Sign up for the BETA
  • Get a special BETA license key
  • Download the latest BETA release (we update it regularly)
  • Communicate with other BETA testers and the SmarterTools development team
  • Stay up-to-date on the latest release note and BETA news

Sign up for the BETA

Microsoft’s CalDAV Misstep

So, many Windows Phone 8 customers are getting the latest update to their mobile operating systems, called Windows Phone 8 GDR2. While this update includes a number of “fixes”, the most anticipated change was adding in support for CalDAV and CardDAV, two widely-used and supported syncing protocols for a user’s calendars and contacts.

We were excited for the release as SmarterMail includes support for both protocols. They give customers a simple and free alternative for syncing their mobile devices with their SmarterMail accounts, especially when using IMAP for syncing email. iPhones (all iOS devices, really) include support for both natively and there are a few inexpensive Android apps that allow users to sync their Android devices as well. Windows Phone 7 and 8 always relied on Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) for their syncing of calendars and contacts, so having the ability to use “the DAVs” meant that users wouldn’t have to necessarily assume any additional costs for fully and completely syncing their devices.

To step back a bit and to offer a bit of history, Microsoft is including support for the DAVs as a direct result of Google saying that they were no longer offering their Google Sync tool, which relies on EAS, for non-paid users of GMail. Instead, free GMail users would need to sync calendars and contacts using other technologies, the most notable of which are CalDAV and CardDAV. User’s of Googles paid Apps, however, will still be able to use Google Sync. Earlier this year, Microsoft, not wanting to alienate Windows Phone 8 users and keep them from syncing with GMail, relented and announced they’d include support for the DAVs in an upcoming update of Windows Phone 8.

Well, that update is out and is slowly making its way to Windows Phone users. We got our hands on it and, sure enough, you CAN sync a GMail account using CalDAV and CardDAV…but that’s ALL you can sync. The Windows Phone GDR2 update DOES NOT include CalDAV/CardDAV support for non-Google accounts. That means you CAN NOT add any non-Google account and expect it to use those protocols. Great for users of GMail, but a pretty shoddy implementation for people who use other email, calendaring and contact solutions.

So, what does this mean for SmarterMail users? Well, on the one hand, Windows Phone 8 customers can still use EAS and experience seamless synchronization of their email, calendars and contacts. EAS is a robust and widely-supported protocol on virtually every mobile device. On the other hand, Microsoft has somewhat failed users by NOT giving them a simple, free alternative for syncing contacts and calendars with their mobile devices. Of course, there’s always using SyncML, but finding a good implementation of that is getting harder and harder to find.

We can only hope that Microsoft sees the error of their ways and adds CalDAV and CardDAV support for ANY account type in a future release. Until then, EAS is your best and most reliable option for syncing a Windows 8 device and your SmarterMail account.

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