Case Study: Gordano's NTMail email server

FreeNet’s phenomenal growth required a highly scalable email solution. NTMail provided for both administration and customer needs...

FreeNet’s phenomenal growth required a highly scalable email solution. NTMail provided for both administration and customer needs on a “minuscule budget”

The Internet user in the UK is currently being offered free Internet services by over a dozen companies. However, it is a little known fact that the first free Internet service was offered by a small Hampshire ISP known as FreeNet.

FreeNet's parent company, Athene, started life in 1986 by writing a product called Turbo Quill, which was used to speed up word processing on the Sinclair QL. It then opened retail premises selling the Commodore Amiga. It later saw how the market was going and switched, in 1989, to handling PCs. Like many general computer retailers, it got hit by falling margins, mail order sales and the move into commodity PC selling by the likes of Dixons and other electrical chain stores. In 1995 it saw the Internet as an area of potential growth and duly became an ISP, mainly serving subscription customers local to its Hampshire base of Fareham. In January 1998 it set up a local call rate national access number, but had fewer than 1,000 customers.

With the rapid changes in the telecomms market, telecomms were starting to offer deals which returned part of the call charges to large users. In July 1998, Athene negotiated just such an arrangement with a supplier. Although the telco had expected standard subscription rates to be continued, Julian Dyer, managing director of Athene, decided to risk cutting rates to zero to stimulate growth, relying for income on the telco rebate which he then expected to grow substantially in real terms.

FreeNet Internet went live in July 1998, adding around 50,000 accounts between November 1998 and June 1999. "It might only have been by a week or so," says Dyer. "But as far as we can tell, we were the first ISP to offer completely free access using local rate access numbers for 100 per cent of the UK." The services offered included web hosting, Internet surfing and email routing for all types of customers. "We've had phenomenal growth," remarks Julian Dyer. "And it has sometimes been difficult to handle. Fortunately, our systems have worked well and our mail server has scaled easily as demand rocketed."

Athene had decided to base its ISP activities on an NT platform rather than use the then more popular Unix. This brought its own difficulties. There was a lack of experience and information available, and Athene had to develop on its own technical skills to solve problems. According to Pipex, which were then supplying their feed, it was the first ISP to get an NT platform fully working.

Offering a complete email solution for their customers, which was also able to handle the huge numbers of new users, was of paramount importance to FreeNet. Being an NT house also limited its choice of mail servers, while a tiny budget reduced it even further. It was these factors, rather than having made a more considered evaluation, which led Athene to Gordano's NTMail.

"It turned out to be a good choice," says Dyer. "And although both the range and our budget have increased, we'd almost certainly choose NTMail once more. One of the features we particularly liked is its capability for handling multiple domains transparently, something which makes handling the virtual hosting services we offer very straightforward. I also liked the fact that NTMail is easy to set up and configure. While we were familiar with NT, we weren't NT wizards, but we could do the work in-house - very important, given our minuscule budget."

Being open for business 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, means that reliability and security are of major importance. Customers unable to access email or their websites aren't interested in excuses and just want things fixed. Being familiar with NT, Athene has grown into handling security efficiently and believes that they have ended up with what is generally a very secure system.

Part of their defences relies on the Gordano add-on, JUCE, which offers sophisticated mechanisms to identify and filter spam. NTMail also includes optional anti-virus protection hooks, but Athene has chosen not to use these particular links, although it welcomes and uses the recent move to browser-based configuration and control.

At present, FreeNet runs NTMail and its 50,000+ user accounts from a single server and expects it to cope well with the anticipated increase to double that number shortly.

"100,000 users is probably the limit for a single server," comments Dyer. "And so the imminent new version that allows load balancing is going to be very interesting for us."

Athene certainly isn't standing still and Dyer intends taking control of the changes which will inevitably affect the company. He's working on developing new products, including a unified messaging service bringing together fax, voice, email and more, and on offering business customers access profiles controlled through caller IDs.

With the telecomms market undergoing dramatic change and Internet usage exploding, managing change efficiently is going to remain a priority for FreeNet. However, for a company such as Athene with a well-respected brand and drawing on sound technical understanding of the operating platform and of business requirements, the future looks bright.

Compiled by Will Garside

Read more on Operating systems software