Understanding Email

 


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Everybody knows what email is, right? In the modern business world, email has become one of our most important methods of communication, and indeed often a web hosting client considers the operation of his email more important than the website itself. Unfortunately however, most people have only a very superficial idea of how email really works, so when trouble does arise, they have no idea how to troubleshoot the problem and it takes longer to solve. Just by knowing the basics of how email works, you can give a more accurate problem description to tech support personnel and even solve some problems yourself! You might even find some new and useful features of your email that you didn't know about before. Let's get started.

What exactly is an email address?

The short answer is that an email address is a user account of a particular domain name that is hosted somewhere. That domain name can be your own or one that someone else allows you to have an account on, such as yahoo.com or gmail.com. Either way, the domain must be hosted, not simply registered. The web hosting server is what provides the software to send and receive mail and the disk space to store received messages in a mailbox file.

All web hosting accounts come with the ability to create user email accounts. To create the email address myname@mydomain.com, you would log into your hosting control panel for mydomain.com and create a new user called “myname" in the user account management area and create a password for that user. Once this is done, an internet-accessible mailbox is created on the server which you can begin using to send and receive email by whatever connection methods your host allows.

What happens when I check my email?

Before we start this answer, there are two types of email accounts that you can use, POP and IMAP. POP (Post Office Protocol) is by far the most common and is what we will discuss first. IMAP will be described separately below.

As we said above, every email address has a username and a password. Wherever you log in to check your email, whether it is a web-based interface like hotmail.com or an email client like Outlook Express, you have to provide your username and password to receive mail. The username tells the server which mailbox file to retrieve or display the mail from, and the password confirms your identity to prove to the server that you are authorized to receive the mail. The server has your password stored in a file from the time your account was created, and whenever you log in, it compares the password you provide with the password it has on file. If they match, then the server allows you to access the mail in your mailbox.

All passwords are case-sensitive, so if your original password is “PassWord" and you try to log in with “password", it won't work. Usernames are not case-sensitive, however, so the server will recognize you whether you log in as “MyName" or “myname".

What is the difference between web-based email and using an email client?

The two primary ways to access an email account are from a web-based interface or by using an email client program, like Eudora, Thunderbird or Microsoft Outlook. Here's how they work:

1. Web-Based Mail: This type of access is done through your web browser. You would browse to a particular web page that has a login area connected to the web hosting server that houses your account. You put in your username and password and you are conveyed to a page that displays the contents of your mailbox on the server. From here you can read, reply to, forward or delete mail you have received, or generate and send new messages. All of this is done through a mail program running on the server such as Horde, Squirrelmail, or NeoMail, or a custom interface like those used by Yahoo!, GMail, etc. Some servers even offer you the option of logging in through different mail programs, depending on which one you like better. You can access web-based mail from anywhere in the world where you have internet access.

Whenever you use a web-based interface to manage your mail, you are accessing the contents of your mailbox on the server directly. If the server allows you 20 megabytes of disk space for your mailbox, then that is the maximum amount of mail you can have in your box at any one time. If you fill up all of that space, then you will not be able to receive any more mail until you delete some messages or get your host to give you more storage space, so your ability to archive messages is limited. If you delete a message, then it is gone forever. Web-based mail is fairly slow because your computer is continuously making connections with the mail server, and most web-based mail programs have fairly limited features.

2. Email Clients: You are probably familiar with email programs such as Microsoft Outlook or Eudora. They are what is known as an email client. Email clients can only be accessed from the computer on which the program is installed, but instead of only being able to access one server like the web-based mail programs, an email client can be set up to check multiple email accounts hosted on different servers at the same time. All you need to check an email address from an email account are the following settings:

  • Username
  • Password
  • POP3 (Incoming Mail) Server
  • SMTP (Outgoing Mail) Server

You already know about the username and password, and the two mail servers tell your email client where to find the web hosting server that your account resides on so that it can connect to the mail software on that computer and allow you to send and receive mail. Whenever you sign up for a web hosting account, the hosting provider will tell you what the names of these servers are, and they are usually related to your domain name. A typical POP3 server name would be mail. mydomain.com or pop3. mydomain.com.

The SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) server is a separate part of the server's mail software which handles outgoing email. Its name might look like mail. mydomain.com or smtp. mydomain.com. Most servers require you to check your incoming mail first, and thus verify your identity with your password, before they will allow you to send mail out. On average servers will store this verification for 30 minutes before requiring you to check your mail again. Some internet service providers (ISPs), such as Earthlink and SBC, may require you to use their corporate SMTP servers instead of the one set up with your domain, in order to help them control junk email being sent out through their network. You can find out what their SMTP server is by contacting the ISP's technical support or looking it up on their website.

A key difference in how an email client works compared with a webbased interface is that the email client downloads the contents of the mailbox to your computer's hard drive and removes them from your mailbox on the server. This way, you can store as much old email as your hard drive can hold and you rarely have to worry about your disk space on the server getting full as long as you check your mail frequently. If you go a long time without checking your email or you receive several large attachments, then your mailbox on the server can still get full, but as soon as you check your mail with the mail client, the mailbox is emptied just like a regular postal mailbox and the cycle starts over. An email client usually also comes with a larger range of features, such as address books, mail filtering and folder storage options, read receipt notices and other things that a web-based program can't handle because it would bog the server down trying to handle all that for hundreds or thousands of accounts.

The downside of using an email client is that you can only check the mail from wherever you have the client set up with your account settings entered into it. If you want to check the mail from two different computers, then whichever computer checks the mail first will get it and the other one won't, just like two people checking the corner mailbox. Most email clients have a setting that allows you to leave a copy of messages on the server so that multiple computers can get the same mail, but this has to be carefully coordinated among the different computers involved. A more convenient way to do this is using the IMAP protocol, as you'll see below.

Can I use both web-based mail and an email client at the same time?

Yes, absolutely. Many people use an email client when they are in their office or at home and check their mail through the web-based interface provided by their web host when they are away from their computer. One does not interfere with the other.

What is IMAP?

IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) was designed to solve the problem of checking mail from multiple computers in an email client. When you are checking mail on multiple computers with the POP method, then each computer has its own record of how the mail has been managed. If you delete an old message on one computer and the other computer also has a copy of the same message, you will have to delete it a second time on the other computer in order for both clients to match. IMAP solves this problem by maintaining the mailbox on the server without sacrificing the client software's added functionality. Any client checking an IMAP-enabled email account will see the same mailbox contents no matter where it is, but will still be able to execute all of the functions programmed into the client on that mail as if it were using a POP account.

IMAP has the same disadvantages as web-based email in that you are limited to the amount of disk space allowed by your host and access speed is slow because you are accessing a remote server repeatedly. For this reason, IMAP is much less common than POP email.

What is an email alias?

Suppose your email address is bobsmith@mydomain.com, but you want people to be able to email you at bob@mydomain.com or sales@mydomain.com as well. You don't have to set up three different user accounts if all of that mail is coming to you. Instead you can set up aliases, also called forwarders, to your account, which are other names that forward to the same mailbox. You still have to use the original username to log in and check your mail, but you can set up as many aliases to your account as you want. These would be set up in your web hosting control panel in the user account management section.

You can also set up aliases that go to multiple addresses. For instance, if your company has three salespeople each with their own email address, but you want all of them to receive a copy of messages sent to sales@mydomain.com, you don't have to set up an IMAP account on each of their computers. You can simply set up an alias called “sales" that forwards to all three of their addresses, and each will instantly get a copy when an email is received. However, if you have two employees named Bob Smith and Bob Jones, you probably don't want bob@mydomain.com to go to both bobsmith@mydomain.com and bobjones@mydomain.com. In that case it would be better to have unique aliases like “bobs" and “bobj".

Can an alias forward mail to an address outside my domain?

Yes. Say you've had a Hotmail email account for years and you've just set up hosting for a new domain name. You want to be able to receive email to your new domain, but you really don't want to check multiple accounts. You can set up an alias in your hosting control panel that automatically forwards all mail sent to myname@mydomain.com to myname@hotmail.com. No mail will pile up on your web server, it will simply pass through it like a waypoint before being redirected to your Hotmail account.

What is a default or catch-all account?

Whenever you set up a web hosting account, you automatically have one user account, the default user, even if you don't set up any others. This user's mailbox is usually set up as a catch-all, meaning that it will receive any email that ends with @mydomain.com that doesn't go to a specific named account. It usually looks like mydomain@mydomain.com. If the only user account you set up is bobsmith@mydomain.com, then that account will receive only mail sent directly to it. If some spammer tries to send an email to rumplestilskin@mydomain.com, it will end up in the catch-all account.

Most control panels allow you to change which of your accounts is the catch-all, so you could ignore the default user and have all mail routed to bobsmith@mydomain.com if you wanted. If you really don't care about email sent to batman@mydomain.com, however, you may also choose to blackhole the catch-all, meaning instantly delete whatever comes into it, or you can bounce it so that the sender gets a message saying that address at your domain does not exist. This is usually a wise choice, since most catch-all accounts these days are magnets for junk mail.

What is an autoresponder?

It's time for you to take that much-needed vacation and you want to make sure that people know you won't be answering your messages for a few days. You can set up an autoresponder in your control panel for a particular user account so that anyone who sends you an email, gets an instant programmed reply. You simply select the account you want to create the autoresponder for, type up the message you want everybody to get, then save it. When you're ready to stop it and answer your own messages again, you can either turn the autoresponder off or delete it, depending on the type of control panel you have.

One problem with autoresponders, however, is that they automatically respond to everything. If someone else who has an autoresponder turned on sends you an email, the two servers will quickly wind up in an autoresponder war and both mailboxes will fill up with thousands of messages until they reach their disk space limit or one of the autoresponders is turned off.

Conclusion

Now that you know how email works, hopefully you've found something that makes your job a little easier or clears up a problem you were having. The next time your computer says your password is incorrect or that it can't connect to the POP3 server, you at least have an idea what that means and why it might be happening, and you can convey that to the technical support person who is helping you or fiddle around with your settings and try to fix it yourself. Either way, next time you'll be able to get back to business faster!

© Copyright 2005 by Stacy Clifford
Stacy Clifford is the founder of ChiliPepperWeb.net and has spent four years assisting customers in understanding how their web services work.

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