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Vendors target e-mail overload

'Sieve' technology may become Internet standard.

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Tired of slogging through hundreds of e-mail messages each day? An emerging technology called Sieve touts a simple, universal way to create filters for sorting, deleting and forwarding e-mail messages before they enter your inbox.

Sieve is undergoing last-minute tweaking by engineers from Mirapoint, Cyrusoft, Qualcomm and other e-mail vendors. These engineers recently asked the leadership of the Internet Engineering Task Force to approve Sieve as a standards-track protocol.

Sieve offers network managers several advantages over the filtering capabilities available in today's leading e-mail packages, such as:

Providing a common way to create and share e-mail filters across diverse e-mail systems.

Supporting server-side filtering, which means users don't have to download e-mail they want filtered.

Prohibiting users from creating filters that would harm the performance or security of the overall e-mail system.

Supporting graphical user interfaces (GUI) that make it easier for end users and administrators to create filters.

Mike Green, a senior messaging analyst with Thomson Financial in Boston, says Sieve sounds like a useful tool, as he manages Sendmail and Microsoft Exchange servers that support 8,000 employees.

"It would be good to have a common filtering environment that lets me set the same filters across our Sendmail servers and our Exchange mail servers," Green says. "It would also be nice to offer [server-side] filtering to the end users to manage their mail . . . but I think only the more technically literate would utilize it."

Sieve is an e-mail filtering language that will be supported in e-mail server and client software. As an open Internet standard, Sieve would potentially work with any e-mail system and run on any operating system.

Network managers will see Sieve-compliant products hit the market soon. Already, Critical Path, Sendmail and Cyrusoft plan to support Sieve in upcoming versions of their e-mail software.

"After years of development, Sieve is ready for prime time and actual products now," says Matt Wall, acting CEO of Cyrusoft, which will release in October a version of its Mulberry e-mail client software that supports Sieve. "Sieve looks like a no-brainer to me. It's really simple, and it meets a very specific need."

Sieve replaces Procmail, a hard-to-use Unix freeware package that provides server-side e-mail filtering, and proprietary client-side e-mail filtering found in Microsoft Outlook, Qualcomm's Eudora and others.

"We are really excited about Sieve as a vehicle for doing server-side filtering," says Wiley Hodges, director of product management at Sendmail, which plans to release Sieve-compliant products during the next 12 to 18 months. Sendmail doesn't recommend the use of Procmail because of its weak security. "We think there's real potential here to finally slay the Procmail beast once and for all," Hodges says.

Sieve lets end users create filters based on e-mail header information through a GUI in e-mail client software. The filters might include putting all messages from mailing lists into particular folders, prioritizing e-mail from certain people, deleting e-mail from other people and forwarding only specific types of e-mail to a handheld device.

The Sieve filters are stored on the e-mail server software, which sorts incoming messages according to a user's filters before the user receives his e-mail. Server-side e-mail filtering is useful for mobile users who want to set up different filters for their PCs, laptops and handheld devices.

"I use Sieve internally to filter all of my mail," says Randall Gallens, a staff engineer at Qualcomm working on the protocol. "I get several hundred pieces of e-mail per day. Most of it gets thrown out. The rest gets filed automatically. I have multiple mailboxes and three or four different machines, but all my e-mail looks the same. The Sieve filter looks at the messages and files them into the right shared folders."

Sieve developers hope the technology will bring e-mail filtering to the masses. Today, less than 5% of Internet users filter their incoming e-mail, according to surveys conducted by Cyrusoft. Filtering will become more critical as e-mail volume grows. Framingham, Mass., market research firm IDC predicts worldwide e-mail volume will triple to more than 25 billion messages per year by 2005.

The only way that e-mail filtering systems like Sieve will become widespread is if they are easy to use, says Mark Levitt, director of collaborative computing at IDC.

"Whoever can create that incredibly simple-to-use, menu-driven configuration for creation and editing of filters for end users is going to win, regardless of whether they're using a common programming language designed specifically for e-mail filtering," Levitt says.

One challenge for Sieve is that it doesn't have support from the major e-mail client software vendors, such as Microsoft, Lotus or Netscape. Microsoft and Lotus say they are waiting until Sieve is fully standardized before they support the technology.

"We're going to need some client buy-in," says Tim Showalter, the primary developer of Sieve and a member of the technical staff at Mirapoint. "You could put a Sieve engine on a Web server and do it all through a Web browser. But I think it will fundamentally work better and look better on an e-mail client than on a Web client."

One company that plans to offer a Sieve-enabled Web client is Critical Path, which also will support Sieve in the next release of its enterprise-class InScribe Messaging Server due out this fall. The Web client will allow end users to access the basic functions of Sieve through a GUI.

"The functionality offered by Sieve is something we've had in our mail servers and outsourced mail service for some time. But the ability to use a standard language is certainly welcome," says Mike Serbinis, chief security officer of Critical Path.

Another challenge for Sieve is whether it will be powerful enough to replace e-mail filtering capabilities found in proprietary and open source offerings.

Sieve developers have created an extension for vacation auto-response messages that they hope to standardize along with the basic Sieve protocol. Other extensions are in the works.

Despite these hurdles, Sieve developers are optimistic about the technology.

"Sieve is one of those things that can make your life a lot easier and help you get organized, but it won't give you an extra five hours a day," Qualcomm's Gallens says. "I think that in a few years, people won't be able to imagine doing e-mail without Sieve capabilities."


Contact Senior Editor Carolyn Duffy Marsan

Other recent articles by Marsan

Overview of Sieve
Includes sample scripts and implementations.

Sieve document
Pending IETF approval.

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