CIOs advise best use of e-mail

That cute, animated Web birthday card sent to a federal employee is slowing down agency
e-mail systems, a new report on improving agency e-mail interoperability said.


The report, from the Chief Information Officer Council, offers guidelines on
streamlining messaging.


E-mail interoperability is a key issue for the CIO Council, and council members focused
on it during the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association's recent Virtual
Government conference.


"This is one of those issues where we, as a CIO Council, are going to say, 'This
is important to us,'" said Agriculture Department CIO Anne Thomson Reed, chairperson
of the CIO Council's Interoperability Committee.


The inability of agencies to share documents because of proprietary e-mail systems is
"one of the most frustrating things our customers deal with," Reed said.
"We need to break down the information stovepipes."


"Folks were having difficulty sending e-mail and documents. So [the Council] said,
'Come on, guys, we have to fix this,'" said James "Artch" Griffin, who
heads up the Interoperability Committee's work group in the Office of Information
Technology in the General Service Administration Office of Governmentwide Policy.


To help, the CIO Council posted a Technical and Operational Guidance (TOG) document, One
Hundred and One Ways to Improve E-Mail Interoperability.
One of the biggest problems:
Proprietary e-mail programs are being used throughout government.


Interoperability is impossible because the LAN e-mail programs communicate with nothing
but themselves, unless they go through a gateway, Griffin said. Different
e-mail systems have their own singular way of representing addresses, formatting text and
handling attachments.


New systems are increasingly using Internet standards: Simple Mail Transfer Protocol
and Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions.


They also include other messaging standards put forward by the Internet Engineering
Taskforce, such as the Post Office Protocol and the Internet Messaging Access Protocol 4,
Griffin said.


The Defense Department's Defense Message System uses the X.400 gateways, which are
widely used in NATO.


Additional standards aren't needed, Griffin said. "We've got too many
already--let's use the ones we have well," he said.


The document recommends that agencies upgrade their gateways. "A good gateway is
one that supports and conforms to the set of e-mail related standards for SMTP and MIME.
Do not ignore X.400, but consider that the folks that operate X.400-based messaging
systems already have gateways for SMTP and MIME messages," the document said.
Therefore it doesn't make sense to spend money on an X.400-enabled gateway, the TOG said.


More complicated are user perceptions of e-mail. Users, the guidance document said,
"see e-mail use as an unlimited resource with little or no cost to them." They
do not understand that "agency systems are a shared resource to be used with care and
thought, primarily to expedite agency business," the document said.


Therefore, sending and receiving large attachment files, often without a business
purpose, can slow e-mail, use up bandwidth and clog gateways.


The problem is widespread and includes digital family photos that are e-mailed to
friends or digital greeting cards, the council found. During the holiday season, one
agency received more than 2,000 holiday greeting cards that were greater than 2M or
larger.


"Is having the agency buy a faster e-mail gateway or higher capacity Internet link
the solution to this? The real solution is for Internet users to behave responsibly,"
the document said.


Other problems addressed in the document are transfer agent configurations and e-mail
client configurations. In general, the report recommends that users adopt the KIRS
rule--keep it really simple.


The document is currently in its third draft. Griffin said he is looking for some
additional ideas. It will then be posted as an official CIO Council TOG, he said. The
concepts will not be mandated, but will be recommended procedures. "Do this and
people will be happier with your operation. But you don't have to," he said. "Do
it because it's a good idea."


The document is on the CIO Council's Web site at http://www.cio.fed.gov/emtog03b.htm.


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