As they might say in France: Vive l'e-mail!
As they might say in France: Vive l'e-mail!
By William Jackson
Finding its monopoly on paper mail delivery eroded by electronic messaging, the Postal Service has joined forces with the post offices of Canada and France to roll out a certified Internet mail delivery service.
USPS, Canada Post and France's La Poste have been testing the Post Electronic Courier Service (PostECS) for about a year. The three national organizations have a contract with Tumbleweed Soft-ware Corp. to use the Redwood City, Calif., company's Tumbleweed Integrated Messaging Exchange engine.
Tumbleweed IME, when integrated with the Electronic Postmark Service developed by USPS, provides a tamper-resistant time and date stamp for electronic documents, USPS officials said. The other postal services are licensing EPS from the Postal Service. The applications operate separately through Web servers at data centers in San Mateo, Calif., Ottawa and Paris.
La Poste has announced it expects to launch the service next year; Canadian officials said they might launch theirs earlier. USPS is offering free trials of PostECS on its Web site, at www.usps.gov, but has not set a full release date.
'It's still in test, and I don't know how much longer it's going to run,' a USPS spokesman said.
The three postal services developed PostECS under the auspices of the International Post Corp., an umbrella organization of national postal agencies. IPC is working on standards for certified electronic messaging.Paper preference
Although faxes and e-mail have overtaken physical mail in volume, paper documents still are preferred for security and legal purposes, postal officials said. PostECS is an attempt to forestall further erosion of postal business by marketing authentication and transmission technologies for secure, legally binding electronic documents.
PostECS relies on a secure Web server for document handling; e-mail is used only for notification. Users upload and access documents through any Web browser that can support Secure Sockets Layer encryption.
'The trick isn't making it secure from end to end but finding a way to make it work for everybody,' said Mark Pastore, Tumbleweed's vice president of corporate development.
Because much of e-mail's functionality resides in the client messaging software and because there is so much variation in brands and versions, the postal organizations concluded that it would be too difficult to transfer messages securely and track them. 'The security standards in Web browsers are more evolved,' Pastore said.
To use the service, a sender with an account logs on to the PostECS Web site, establishes a secure session and uploads the documents to be sent, along with the recipient's e-mail address.
PostECS generates an e-mail to the recipient containing the uniform resource locator where the documents can be accessed. The sender has the option of requiring a password to access the document, and the password goes to the recipient by another route.
USPS selected Tumbleweed IME for PostECS in part for scalability reasons. Its Common Object Request Broker Architecture incorporates numerous multithreaded objects to handle management, delivery and accounting on multiprocessor servers. IME's 18 components for the database, e-mail server and Web server portions can run on up to three systems to deliver large numbers of files simultaneously.
Tumbleweed IME is optimized for Sun Microsystems hardware, and each PostECS data center runs it on a Sparc server under SunSoft Solaris. Other software includes the Oracle8 database manager and the Netscape Enterprise HTTP Server.
SSL encrypts the data between Web client and server. On the server, documents can be encrypted separately using symmetric algorithms from RSA Data Security Inc. of Redwood City, Calif.How PostECS works
- The sender establishes an account and logs on with user name and password from any Web browser supporting SSL.
- The sender enters the recipient e-mail addresses or mailing lists, writes a message, if desired, and selects files for delivery. Sending options include priority, encryption, receipt notification, expiration date, delivery date, billing code, password, secure communication and electronic postmark.
- After pressing the Send button, the sender can track the transfer and status of all messages that came from the account.