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E-mail: a primer for academics.

Electronic mail (e-mail) consists of information, usually text, that is electronically transmitted over the phone lines from a single sender to one or more recipients. Facsimile mail (fax) is thus a crude form of e-mail. Unlike fax mail, however, when an e-mail message is received, its recipient can easily reply. Since e-mail is already a computer (digital) file it can be manipulated, edited, saved and retrieved like any other word-processor file. A fax message, on the other hand, is actually an image; it is not composed of digital characters but is instead a "snapshot" of the page being transmitted.

A common academic use of e-mail involves joint authorship of papers by writers who reside in different cities. Authors can exchange documents, modify and manipulate the text using word processors, and then transmit the altered transcripts back. Without e-mail, joint authorship of an article or book entails long delays between exchanges. With it, authors can trade updated drafts daily.

Another growing and significant use of e-mail is on bulletin board services (BBSs) through which people exchange ideas on a wide variety of topics. Such BBSs allow people with common interests to communicate and debate without the time delays of traditional mail or the costs of travel.

Academia's Super Network

Within the United States there exists a non-commercial computer "network of networks" called Internet. Internet is a collection of individual networks, all linked. Anyone using any one of the member networks can communicate with people on any other member network.

Thousands of colleges, universities, government agencies, and commercial and non-profit concerns are attached to Internet and can therefore intercommunicate. Internet presently includes BITNET, Arpanet, MILitary NETwork, CSNet, NSFNET, BARRNet, CICNet, JvNet, Merit, MIDNet, NEARNet, NYSERNet, OARNet, PREPNet, Sesquinet, SURANet, WESTNet, and many others.

Internet also has links to networks in Canada, South America, Europe, the Middle East and Japan, and will soon connect various Eastern European and Asiatic countries.

Internet in Detail

Organizations can join the Internet community by paying a fixed, annual fee for connection and use. Charges are not based on traffic usage so individual users, faculty members for example, need not worry about funding. The concept is similar to inter-office or campus mail, where costs are borne by the company or institution rather than by the individual or department. Since researchers or staff members do not have pay for every time they access the network, they are encouraged to use it more fully.

The corollary of liberal use, of course, is that the network can become heavily loaded, degrading its level of service. The National Science Foundation is committed to adding sufficient bandwidth (speed) to the national backbone-network (called NSFNET) to continue high levels of service. (The National Science Foundation announced June 13th that they have begun to implement T3 technology on NSFNET. T3 will transmit data at 45 Mbps, roughly 28 times faster than the present, T1, speed. T3 is scheduled to be operational by the end of 1990.-eds.)

Internet's fundamental principle has caused it to become quite ubiquitous, but its focus remains largely on academics and research. Internet cannot be used for commercial purposes or for sending large amounts of unsolicited mail. Regulation is largely through peer pressure and has been, so far, enormously effective.

Factoring in LANs

Local-area networks (LANs) let computers share files and peripherals such as printers. It is not unusual to find dozens of LANs within a large university. Some LANs are simply several individual microcomputers and a printer linked together. In other schemes a LAN is linked to a campus mainframe. In still other configurations, one LAN is linked to one or more other LANs. Under the multiple LAN environment, if there are incompatible LANs linked, they may not be able to intercommunicate and thus their users will not be able to exchange e-mail. But there are ways around this.

For example, if a LAN is linked to a campus mainframe, and another, incompatible LAN is also connected to the same mainframe, then individuals on both LANs can communicate through the mainframe even though they cannot talk directly to each other. And if that mainframe computer is also connected to Internet, then users on both LANs can also communicate worldwide.

And in a multiple LAN environment without mainframe access, a way around the communications roadblock is to make sure that one of the LANs also has a link to Internet, again allowing Internet to act as the hub for e-mail.

A common academic use of e-mail

involves joint authorship of papers.

Selecting E-Mail Software

Most LAN e-mail systems are LAN-specific-only computers on that LAN can communicate. Often, little attention is paid to connectivity beyond that one LAN; instead emphasis is on ease-of-use and functions such as an "in basket" and creating, sending and replying to mail. But LAN e-mail should aim well beyond such nearsighted initial goals; its designers should plan for interconnection among all computers. Most e-mail systems are not hard to use, but a lack of connectivity that prevents you from communicating with colleagues is a severe limitation, and will eventually render the system unusable.

Further, some people begin with one e-mail system, but soon find that they want to communicate with people using other systems. Different systems utilize different commands and require additional training. Sometimes people need to use three or four different e-mail systems. Not only does it require time to learn the various commands and facilities of each mail system, one must also check each system frequently to determine if new mail has arrived. A more sensible approach is to attempt to use only one e-mail system, with one mailbox.

Other Considerations

Extra LAN functions are sometimes built-in to e-mail packages. Functions may include appointment calendars, to-do lists, meeting and facilities scheduling, and project management tools. However, such tools are available separately, and their inclusion in a given e-mail package should not sidetrack the decision to give connectivity high priority.

At present, many corporate and campus data-processing departments are evaluating and testing various e-mail systems to determine those with Internet-connectivity capabilities. The consequence of installing e-mail software without Internet connectivity is that LAN users must learn two or more different e-mail systems and must check for mail in two or more places. This wastes time and permits lag in e-mail replies. The better choice is to install e-mail software that links to Internet.

Most e-mail systems are not

hard to use.

In summary, e-mail is likely to become preferred over the U.S. postal mail and even the telephone because of its speed and convenience. E-mail messages travel across the country in minutes and can be sent from or received at your desk. Just as we have seen fax usage mushroom, we will see a similar phenomenon with e-mail.

Dr. Martin B. Solomon is the system vice president for Computing & Communications and a professor of computer science at the University of South Carolina. Presently he also sits on the board of trustees of the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN), which has subsumed the previous networks BITNET and CSNet.

Short Course on Addressing E-Mail

Two pieces of information are required to send e-mail over Internet: the recipient's user identification (USERID) and the name of the computer (NODE) to which mail is to be sent.

For example, my USERID is SOLOMON. But since there may be many SOLOMONs throughout Internet, the particular computer (node) involved must also be specified. In my case, the node name is: UNIVSCVM.CSD.SCAROLINA.EDU.

Sometimes node names are much simpler, such as UKCC for the University of Kentucky. To address e-mail to my friend Selwyn Zeroff at the University of Kentucky, I would specify SYSPGMR@UKCC. (Notice that the @ sign separates the USERID from the NODE name.) in turn, Selwyn would address his reply: SOLOMON@UNIVSCVM.CSD.SCARLOLINA.EDU.

The last three characters of the node name usually indicate the type of organization:

* EDU means and educational organization;

* COM means commercial;

* MIL is for military;

* ORG is for non-profit;

* GOV is for government; and

* NET means network office.
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Title Annotation:electronic mail
Author:Solomon, Martin B.
Publication:T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)
Date:Aug 1, 1990
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