Improving Disk I/O and Overall Performance for Your Mail Server, Part 3

In Part One of our series we discussed some tips for setting up your mail server, including tweaks to your operating system and any other software, such as anti-virus, running on your server. In Part Two, we looked at SmarterMail itself and adjustments to items like spam filtering, file attachment sizes and more that can increase overall performance. In this final post, we’ll look at hardware settings and some tips for optimizing email clients and mobile devices.

It doesn’t even matter if you’re running SmarterMail – any mail server will benefit from the various hardware, software and end-user/device mods mentioned. If you’re doing some of these already, then you’re ahead of the curve. However, read through and see if you can grab one or two more that allow you to squeeze the most out of your mail server performance.

Devices/Clients

Use IMAP and CalDAV/CardDAV for Syncing

IMAP is a time-tested mail delivery protocol – it’s fast, it’s reliable and every device and email client supports it for retrieving incoming messages. Therefore, it’s the best choice for syncing with any email account on any device or desktop client. While things like Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) and Exchange Web Services (EWS) are a bit more robust in what they sync, they can be server-intensive. EWS is something to really review before it is implemented as it’s currently only available for Apple clients like Apple Mail and Outlook for Mac and doesn’t support syncing mobile devices. Further, Outlook users should really only sync their Inbox and not all folders. By default, setting up IMAP will sync all folders. However, syncing just the Inbox is the most efficient setup as folders can be synced “on demand,” or whenever a user clicks on it. This way, only the access that is needed is what’s being set up and processed with the mail server.

For customers concerned about syncing contacts and calendars, using the CalDAV and CardDAV protocols are great for syncing these items. This is especially true now that Windows Phone is rolling out support for both, and even Google started offering native support for both and deprecated EAS support. Android and iOS devices currently support both CalDAV and CardDAV (iOS natively supports it – Android devices do require third-party apps), so most users will get along just fine using them. Finally, IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV are all free to use – no additional costs for service providers or end users, and while Android devices currently need third-party apps, most, if not all, are available for free. Therefore, IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV are truly ideal alternatives for most customers. If you want to use something other than IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV, EAS is the way to go as it is becoming the de facto standard for syncing both mobile devices and desktop clients.

Sync Devices For a Maximum of 30 Days

On many mobile devices you can set the default time frame for syncing messages. Most people want to have as much mail on their phone as possible, but that’s not always the best solution as syncing a ton of information with a mobile device can cause issues, both on the phone as well as on the mail server itself. These issues can not only cause delays in receiving new messages but also issues with lost emails, high disk i/o and more. Therefore, it’s best to sync just a few days’ worth of email and calendar items. The maximum should be 30 days, but a better solution is 5 days or less. Since SmarterMail offers a Web-based interface, even road warriors can get by with just a few days’ worth of email and calendar items – they simply need to log in to their mail account using any Web-connected browser to see the rest.

Keep Mailboxes Small

This should go without saying, but keeping your inbox uncluttered is a great way to ensure your mail server performs well. Large mailboxes are very difficult to manage, especially when using products like Microsoft Outlook as they download EVERYTHING.

So, how can you keep a mailbox small and things working smoothly? Well, first of all, SmarterMail Enterprise offers email archiving. When used, archiving stores every email as it enters the spool. Therefore, even if an user deletes a message, a system or domain administrator can retrieve it and replace it for the user as needed. In addition, archived messages can be stored on a different drive, further saving space and disk i/o.

In addition, when syncing with a mobile device, it’s not necessary to sync every folder a user has. If only the Inbox is synced, and only a few days’ worth of email is synced, then the mail server and device will remain in harmony.

Another thing to avoid is creating sub-folders within your Inbox. Many clients, especially Outlook, don’t handle folders within a user’s Inbox very well. Mobile clients perform even worse when a user has sub-folders in their Inbox. Therefore, it’s best to avoid them whenever possible.

Try to live by the Inbox Zero rule and manage messages rather than letting them sit. Delete, file, store and remove as much as possible and your email clients, servers and mobile devices will perform much better.

Remove Large Attachments

As we noted in a previous post, disk space availability and usage can impact the performance of your mail server. A possible way to avoid this is to either set up some auto-clean rules for your emails or just flat out delete any large attachments. Of course, an alternative to deleting attachments is to move them off the mail server and to a local drive for later retrieval – maybe move them to a Google Drive or Dropbox account so they’re still available for mobile users, but not cluttering up the mail server itself.

Server Hardware

Separate Your Spool and Data

A great way to increase your mail server performance is to separate your email spool and email data into 2 separate, physical drives. This is because your spool, especially on busy mail servers, will see constant reads and writes, which will impact disk i/o. In addition, email data can grow, especially with attachments, file storage, etc. Increased disk space combined with constant reads/writes can be a recipe for disaster for a mail server. Separating these functions (along with the other suggestions discussed) can lead to longer lifespan for your disks, and less chances for corruption, downtime and headaches.

Use SSDs

This may go without saying as SSDs are generally faster than standard hard drives, but it’s worth pointing out nonetheless. SSDs are great for mail servers due to the increase in performance. Sure, they cost more, but the performance increase that a mail server admin will see, as well as their overall durability, is well-worth the investment.  In addition, there may be some concerns over the lifespan of SSDs in a high-production environment. However, implementing some of the other suggestions in this post can lengthen the lifespan of your SSDs, making them not only affordable but a real difference-maker.

RAM Drive for Spool

A RAM drive (a.k.a., a RAM Disk) offers a huge increase in performance, even over the use of SSDs. Most people use RAM drives for loading applications and running things like games or photo-editing software, so using a RAM drive for your email spool means that messages are handled much, much faster than when the spool is part of your normal drive set. There are some disadvantages to using RAM for storage, most significant are that the size is limited to the RAM on hand and RAM drives are dependent on the server staying powered up and online. Then there is the need for third-party applications to manage the drive. However, these are minor headaches compared to the overall performance gains. For more information on RAM drives, PC World has a good article on supercharging your server using a RAM drive.

Raid 10 for Data

Scalability and reliability are crucial factors for any mail server. As anyone working for a hosting provider or ISP can tell you, nothing riles up customers more than when their email is down. Most people can handle when their website is having issues, but even a minute of downtime for a mail server can bring the most patient customer to tears. Having redundancy and failover in your hardware can ensure that, even if you lose a drive, customers see very little downtime, IF they see any at all. RAID 10 offers a simple and relatively cheap way to give your mail server a high level of reliability without sacrificing any speed.

Lots of Memory in the Machine to accomplish these items above

Use of a RAM drive and other suggestions means that your mail server will need enough RAM to be able to handle any situation. 8GB or more seems to be the norm nowadays, especially as RAM prices decline, 16GB being a sweet spot for most mail server admins. Of course, it all depends on load, number of users and how users interact with the mail server. Getting some baseline statistics on memory and disk usage using your mail server’s reporting features or from the server itself is a good place to start. SmarterMail offers system administrators some reports that detail disk and memory usage, as well as user trends and summary reports. Windows offers native reporting tools that can be used as well.

So, there you have it – three blog posts detailing how you can improve the overall performance of your mail server. Of course, these suggestions just touch the surface. I’m sure there’s more that can be done, so if anyone has any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Improving Disk I/O and Overall Performance for Your Mail Server, Part 2

In Part One of our series on Improving Disk I/O for Your Mail Server, we discussed some tweaks to your operating system and any other server software, such as anti-virus, to increase overall performance. In this post, we’ll look at settings and tweaks to SmarterMail itself. If you’re doing some of these already, then you’re ahead of the curve. However, read through and see if you can grab one or two more that allow you to squeeze the most out of your mail server performance.

SmarterMail Tweaks

Setup Domain Auto-Clean Rules for Junk Mail and Deleted Items

When SmarterMail is set up it can be configured to move any spam mail to a Junk Mail folder and any deleted items can be moved to a Deleted Items folder. This is an easy and convenient way to manage these types of emails, but users can get a little distracted and leave these folders unattended. This means that the folders can grow in size and grow so large that they take up an inordinate amount of disk space. To remedy that, administrators should set up rules to automatically clean these folders after a certain amount of time, such as weekly or monthly. Setting up these rules is a great way to ensure that these folders don’t grow out of control, take up a ton of disk space and eventually bog down your disk i/o.

Limit File Attachment Sizes – Use File Storage Instead

It’s hard to get around users sending and receiving files via email. However, you can limit the size of the attachments that can be sent and then offer SmarterMail’s File Storage as an alternative for large attachments. Attachments are stored within a mail server’s GRP file, and encoded. This encoding can add anywhere from 30% – 50% to the size of the attachment. For larger files, this means that disk space can be greatly affected when limitations are absent. File Storage, on the other hand, stores the uploaded file in a user’s folder, but the file isn’t encoded, so it doesn’t increase in size. In addition, users can better-manage file storage files right from within the SmarterMail webmail interface, thereby keeping disk space utilization to a minimum.

Create Strict Spam Settings

A very simple way to keep your mail server running smoothly is to limit the amount of email that actually comes into the mail server. A perfect example is spam messages: it’s a good idea to set up and manage strict anti-spam settings to prevent messages from even making it to the server. We have a KB article of Recommended Spam Settings that you can follow, and one of our power users and a forum Product Expert, Bruce Barnes, has an extensive PDF document outlining different spam settings and efficiencies with setting up various anti-spam measures.

Consider Setting Up an Inbound Gateway

Using an inbound gateway is a great way to offload some of the spam checks and help weed out unwanted email before it gets set for local delivery. While inbound gateways only offer SMTP spam checks (things like Commtouch, etc. can’t run on an inbound gateway), utilizing extensive checks and setting up a variety of RBLs and URIBLs can greatly limit the the amount of spam that gets to the primary mail server. From there, you can use Commtouch or other third-party add-ons to further eliminate spam. You can use SmarterMail as an inbound gateway, for free, and we have a knowledge base article that can help you set it up.

There you have it, a few more tips to help maximize the performance of your mail server. In Part Three, we’ll discuss some hardware changes and email client and mobile device settings that will help keep things running smoothly, so stay tuned!

3 Tips To Speed Up Workstation Deployment

Who actually enjoys sitting around waiting for an installation to complete? Working with developers, one of the tasks I am constantly being asked for in IT is to provision test workstations and virtual machines. Often, I found deploying these stations was time consuming and distracting due to the amount of interaction the installations demanded.

After a few weeks of re-imaging laptops and virtual machines, I was sick of staring at the progress bar. I sought out a way to automate this process not only to speed up the time it takes to install, but to also automate the entire process so I wouldn’t be interrupted by constant prompts. The following are three actions I took to automate and speed up the entire deployment process.

Introducing the SmarterTools Video Channel

Hot on the heels of the BETA release of SmarterStats 6.x, we’re equally pleased to announce that we’re expanding the ways we present SmarterTools’ products. Beginning with the next release of SmarterStats 6.x we will begin offering informational videos that cover a variety of topics, from “How To” segments to release highlights to feature focus videos. We’re currently previewing our first eight (8) videos on the new SmarterStats 6.x Videos page. Please realize, however, that the videos are subject to change and modification during the beta period based on customer feedback, not to mention changes to the application itself.

SmarterTools YouTube Channel

We’re also going to roll out a SmarterTools branded YouTube channel. Here we’ll be placing all of our video content, with videos segmented by playlist for each product we offer. In the future…at least if I have my way…we’ll also be putting up some more informal content, like videos from any conferences we attend, interviews with partners, etc.

What’s the Point?

There’s no doubt that moving in this direction is new for us. However, we know that it is integral for the success of SmarterTools, as well as for the success of our partners and customers. The plan is to offer content in a few different areas:

  • Informational – This includes product overview videos, new feature highlights, new version releases, etc. Generally, this is content based on specific features, new feature sets, or something specific to a product.
  • Instructional –  “How To” videos that demonstrate specific tasks, features or essentially how to do something within a product. These videos won’t be comprehensive, but rather they will demonstrate specific things about specific products that we feel are important to know. We have a knowledgebase that covers more granular topics…
  • Promotional – “Introduction To” videos that give a general, overall view of a product or the company as a whole. These are your flashy, marketing-type videos that will be featured on Overview pages, etc.

The BEST part of this initiative is that we’re going into it with the idea that everyone will benefit. These videos aren’t just for us to use – customers and partners will be able to use them as well. While we’re still working out the details, some thoughts on “How” customers and partners could benefit include:

  • Allowing customers and partners to embed videos in their own blog posts and forum posts.
  • Creating more detailed and specific “How To” videos and offer those as part of the Support packages.
  • Creating “white labeled” videos that partners could re-brand and add to their own KB systems.
  • Begin “Customer Focus” efforts that showcase and highlight how customers and partners are using SmarterTools’ products…

It’s an exciting time for all of us, and we appreciate you all coming along for the ride. What do you think? Is this something that interests you? How would you make this exciting time even better? We’d love to hear it…

This post was written by Derek C., vice-president of marketing and communications for SmarterTools. If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to the SmarterTools Blog so you don’t miss an update.

Five Rules of Email Security and Protection

As TechRepublic writer Chad Perrin once noted in an article about email security tips:

“There’s a lot of information out there about securing your email. Much of it is advanced and doesn’t apply to the typical end user… When one can find end-user email security tips, they’re usually specific to a single mail client or mail user agent…”

His article goes on to outline some basic security tips that apply to all email users, but fails to remind people of the top rules of email security and protection.

We’ve outlined the top five rules of email security below. While many of these rules may seem like common knowledge, they create the basis for which all other email security and protection measures are built.

1. Email is not free.

Services such as Gmail deliver email to some people as a service without charging them a fee. But that does not mean that the service is free. Google harvests information about users and interests–even about the people who receive email from these services–and uses that information to sell advertising. If you conduct business through email this can be especially disconcerting because the Gmail End User License Agreement required to access their “free” services grants permission to Google to market to you and others. They will use the information in the emails to specifically target ads related to the content. The cost of “free” email is likely your information and list of recipients.

2. Spam can be beat (mostly).

Although not perfect, modern email applications and premium spam filters can achieve high levels of spam protection–often exceeding 99%. Remember two important things in this regard: spammers are a moving target, continually adjusting their  techniques;  the order of spam protections can be as important as the types of spam protections you implement.

3. Email lives forever.

It should be common knowledge by now, but it is worth repeating. Email lives forever and even the most thoroughly deleted and purged email thread should be assumed to have a copy or log existing somewhere that a clever IT professional can find a way to access.

4. Abuse detection is vital.

If you are running your own mail server, you should find one with various abuse detections on board. This includes features such as intrusion detection, throttling, connection blocking, harvest attack protection, and malicious script filtering, among others. It is also beneficial if the mail sever has an internal events/action/notification system in place to keep administrators informed in real-time.

5. Don’t forget viruses.

We place a lot of emphasis on spam protection. This is understandable because spam is arguably the biggest problem related to email and therefore virus attacks just do not get the media attention that they used to.  But do not neglect on-board virus protection. Spammers want your money and information–virus creators just want to hurt you and your systems. It is the Web-world difference between a grifter and a sociopath.

This post was written by Tiffany D., a marketing and technical communications specialist for SmarterTools. If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to the SmarterTools Blog so you don’t miss an update.

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