ATPmail delivers the prize in Web E-mail

Long considered a prize for small and large enterprises alike, Web-based e-mail provides a nearly ideal solution for supporting remote or mobile users who must access their mail from a variety of locations. The problem, however, has been the lack of a viable system for delivering e-mail over the Web; administrators have had to write custom applications or buy expensive - and often monolithic - software or hardware packages that don't play well with the wide variety of legacy e-mail clients and platforms in use.

  • E-Mail
By  Jon Tullett Published  January 24, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Web e-mail El Dorado may finally be in sight. ATP Solutions recently rolled out ATPmail, a reasonably priced package that is both flexible and powerful. If you have a Linux box that can run a Sendmail or an SMTP server, an Apache Web server, and PERL 5 or better, you're in business. Support for Solaris is also available.

There are downsides, however, as may be expected in a Web-based application. The most notable flaw is in the security department; another drawback is the product's inability to synchronize with a calendar or scheduling program.

ATPmail grew from a project by software developer Alex Hart, an businessman cum code jockey formerly employed by IBM and Intel. With some 14,000-plus downloads, Hart's freeware aMail client was so popular that he started to add some features; eventually, ATPmail emerged as a full-fledged commercial application.

A variety of Unix-based Web mail packages, such as Anymail, Endymion MailMan and Nascent Technologies' Mailspinner, is now widely available, but few match ATPmail's ease of use, administration features and simple installation. There are also numerous freeware sources for web-mail, with varying degrees of feature sets, stability and support.

For my testing I used a Cobalt Networks RaQ 3i server appliance running Red Hat Linux, but any old Linux machine will do.

Easy installation

Installing ATPmail is a breeze. A simple install shell script asks for some basic data that is needed to place configuration scripts properly, such as install directory with absolute path name, site URL and other file-location information. A graphical Web-based installation routine is also available. The total size of the tar distribution file is less than 120 KB, and, when unpacked, ATPmail weighs in at a svelte 600 KB. Don't let the small size fool you, though - a lot of good loving can be packed into a small amount of space where PERL-based CGI scripts are concerned, and ATPmail consists almost entirely of CGI scripts, with a few bitmap graphics thrown in. The rest of the work is done via the client browser, which must be able to handle JavaScript. No browser version level is indicated in the documentation, but I found no problem while testing on several platforms - very few of today's browsers don't support JavaScript.

While ATPmail uses CGI scripts to generate standard HTML display code, its only fancy footwork is a frames interface, which can't be turned off. Several user-interface controls are offered to manually adjust window and font sizes.

Once ATPmail is installed, you need to create an .htaccess file for the directory in which you want to store your non-public files. An .htaccess file performs many duties, but chief among them is the ability to password-protect a Web site directory. The sole purpose of the .htaccess file in this application is to protect the Admin utility. Creating and managing an .htaccess file are a snap, and the GUI-based installation version is able to perform these tasks for you.

The next step is to run the Admin utility, through which most features of the Web mail application are configured. One nifty option is the ability to indicate whether you want to use an existing Sendmail or other SMTP-compliant server on the machine on which ATPmail is installed, or an external mail server from which to relay. This feature will appeal to managers of corporate LANs or WANs who already house their fair share of mail servers.

||**||Up and running|~||~||~|Now you're ready to add users. ATPmail lets each user manage multiple POP accounts - a helpful feature. Once added, a user then logs into his or her new Web mail "client" via the login URL. All local user information is stored in a protected directory on the machine on which ATPmail is installed.

One feature not included is the capability to perform a mass migration, but given the unusual nature of this product, that's not something I'd expect to see. Creating a script to do the work would be tricky, but not overly complicated depending on your mail-server configuration.

The client login URL works well as a simple authorization checkpoint. You should be sure, however, to remind users that this is not their e-mail account login; it is there merely to identify them to the system.

Once in, users will need to configure their specific mail server settings for each account they want to set up. This is a straightforward process. Variables that may be set include all the usual suspects: destination folders, check on login, save copy on remote server, attachment settings and, of course, outgoing mail options.

Another portion of the Options user interface lets users set basic filter rules that include typical the Boolean if/and rules for moving incoming mail to their choice of folders, including, of course, the trash folder.

A truly useful troubleshooting tool is a log-file viewer that lets administrators view all account interaction activity, including errors that may have been encountered.

The main display window offers the options you would expect to find in any POP client worth its salt. A somewhat baroque address book could use some touching up on the interface side, but like most things in ATPmail, it was functional and useful. The main client window is easy to read and navigate.

One of the product's strongest user tools is an excellent file manager that functions quite well as an FTP replacement tool, allowing a user to upload or download files into his or her local account space on the ATPmail server, though not to a remote mail server.

The file manager lets users keep their files in order on both the local and the remote systems - a neat feature if your users need remote file-management capabilities or if they just want a place to stash files that will be accessible from anywhere with Web access. Of course, administrators can restrict disk quota and attachment file size for each user, so some level of decorum is maintained.

Security concerns

One of the shortcomings of ATPmail, however - and of most applications in this product space - is security. Although managers can easily encrypt host-to-browser traffic by installing an SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate, that doesn't overcome the inherent lack of security of the POP traffic generated on the server side. That is one of the problematic aspects of virtually any Web-based e-mail system and should not be thought of as a deal breaker when considering ATPmail; you're going to have the same problem with its rivals.

Overall, ATPmail is worth a look for Unix shops that need a capable, easily deployed Web-based mail system. All the typical features are here, with very little to complain about.

ATPmail is available as a server product and can also be licensed for personal use. A freeware version (albeit short on the extra features) is also available.

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