Until May 2009 all email between WBS and the outside world passed through IT Services systems. This has recently been changed to address a number of problems. These changes affect WBS staff and PhD students.
- Change to the routing of incoming email
Since the introduction of the WBS anti-spam system (iCritical) in summer 2007 we have seen persistent delays with incoming email, often of a number of hours. The logs clearly showed the problem to be as the email was passed between the IT Services system and the iCritical servers. Both IT Services staff and iCritical engineers worked hard to resolve the issue without success.
To remove this problem, email now comes directly into WBS systems, by-passing the IT Services incoming servers. Since the change we have not detected delays of the order seen previously.
- Change to the routing of outgoing email
Traditionally all email sent from any department at Warwick University has been forwarded to IT Services and from there sent out to the rest of the world. This system has made sense for a number of years as it allows the university to have some confidence that none of its departments could be doing anything crazy that could damage the reputation of the university. The main example would be if a department's mail servers were not secure enough they could be used by spammers to send out their junk. It is understandable why the university may have concerns as to the level of technical competence of each department and so by having one central email sending system this concern is reduced.
There is a problem however. Sometimes the university's systems can be included on lists of possible spammers. This can happen for a number of reasons, which are outlined below. When this happens we find that some of the email we send out gets blocked. Recently (Spring 09) this has particularly been a problem with Yahoo accounts. Emails sent to potential students with Yahoo accounts were not being received as Yahoo had included Warwick University on a list of potential spammers.
From April 09 we have changed the above system so that email is now sent directly from WBS to the outside world. Of course there is still the risk of WBS being included on a list of possible spammers but the risk should be lower as:
- We are smaller than the university and hence less likely to trigger anti-spam alarms
- Only staff send out email so we are less likely to send out messages that could be perceived as spam
Why would the University be included on a list of potential spammers?
There are a number of reasons why a large institution like Warwick University could be included on a list of potential spammers.
The university sends out lots of emails, and some of these could be perceived as spam by the recipients. Examples include academics/students sending out unsolicited questionnaires. If a couple of recipients complain to their internet providers it is perfectly possible that Warwick could be blacklisted as a 'spammer'. Some companies such as Yahoo seem more sensitive (trigger-happy?) than others but any responsible service provider would take action when its customers complain about receiving spam. When this happens we can resolve the situation by contacting the relevant company and reassuring them we do not send out spam but this typically takes a few days, during which time email cannot be sent. This is one reason why all users need to be very careful when sending out messages to ensure they could not be perceived as spam by any of the recipients.
The university has thousands of students, all of whom are given email accounts. Probably all of these students already have their own accounts and so they will typically set up email forwards from their university accounts to their personal accounts. Lets imagine that 20% of students have personal Yahoo accounts. Now if the university sends out an email to all approx 20,000 students (say a message about the library or something that affects all students) 20% of that number (i.e. 4000 messages) will get forwarded on to Yahoo accounts. For Yahoo all they see is 4000 messages sent at the same time from one location to 4000 of their users. To their automatic systems this looks just like spam and hence Warwick is again put onto a blacklist, even though no-one has complained about the messages. Again the 'resolution' is the same as above.
We in WBS have taken a number of steps to reduce this problem. First we outsourced our student email to Google. This should have two benefits... first, students are less likely to forward these messages as they will likely value a Google mail account as it has lots of the features they want. Secondly the email is sent from Google's servers not those of the university or WBS. Hence even if a student were to send out spam to Yahoo they would be looking at blacklisting the Google mail server and not those of Warwick. Finally, as described above, we have obtained the right to send out our own email so that we will not be affected by the possible actions of users elsewhere at the university.