Conflicting email priorities

As mentioned in the Western Front, we're finally migrating students to the new hosted Exchange system Microsoft runs. They've since changed the name from Exchange Labs to OutlookLive. It has taken us about two quarters longer than we intended to start the migration process, but it is finally under way.

Unfortunately for us, we got hit with a problem related to conflicting mail priorities. But first, a bit of background.

ATUS was getting a lot of complaints from students that the current email system (sendmail, with SquirrelMail) was getting snowed under with spam. The open-source tools we used for filtering out spam were not nearly as effective as the very expensive software in front of the Faculty/Staff Exchange system. Or much more importantly, were vastly less effective than the experience Gmail and Hotmail give. Something had to change.

That choice was either to pay between $20K and $50K for an anti-spam system that actually worked, or outsource our email for free to either Google or Microsoft. $20K.... or free. The choice was dead simple. Long story short, we picked Microsoft's offering.

Then came the problem of managing the migration. That took its own time, as the Microsoft service wasn't quite ready for the .EDU regulatory environment. We ran into FERPA related problems that required us to get legal opinions from our own staff and the Registrar relating to what constitutes published information, which required us to design systems to accommodate that. Microsoft's stuff didn't make that easy. Since then, they've rolled out new controls that ease this. Plus, as the article mentioned, we had to engineer the migration process itself.

Now we're migrating users! But there was another curveball we didn't see, but should have. The server that student email was on has been WWU's smart-host for a very long time. It also had the previously mentioned crappy anti-spam. Being the smart-host, it was the server that all of our internal mail blasts (such as campus notifications of the type Virginia Tech taught us to be aware of) relayed through. These mail blasts are deemed critical, so this smart-host was put onto the OutlookLive safe-senders list.

Did I mention that we're forwarding all mail sent to the old address to the new address? The perceptive just figured it out. Once a student is migrated, the spam stream heading for their now old address gets forwarded on to OutlookLive by way of a server that bypasses the spam checker. Some students are now dealing with hundreds of spam messages in their inbox a day.

The obvious fix is to take the old mail server off of the bypass list. This can't be done because right now critical emails are being sent via the old mail server that have to deliver. The next obvious fix, turn off forwarding for students that request it, won't work either since the ERP system has all the old addresses hard-coded in right now and the forwards are how messages from said system get to the addresses. So we geeks are now trying to set up a brand new smart-host, and are in the process of finding all the stuff that was relaying through the old server and attempting to change settings to relay through the new smart-host.

Some of these settings require service restarts of critical systems, such as Blackboard, that we don't normally do during the middle of a quarter. Some are dead simple, such as changing a single .ini entry. Still others require our developers to compile new code with the new address built in, and publish the updated code to the production web servers.

Of course, the primary sysadmin for the old mail-server was called for Federal jury-duty last week and has been in Seattle all this time. I think he comes back Monday. His grep-fu is strong enough to tell us what all relays through the old server. I don't have a login on that server so I can't try it out myself.

Changing smart-hosts is a lot of work. Once we get the key systems working through the new smart-host (Exchange 2007, as it happens), we can tell Microsoft to de-list the old mail-server from the bypass list. This hopefully will cut down the spam flow to the students to only one or two a day at most. And it will allow us to do our own authorized spamming of students through a channel that doesn't include a spam checker. Valuable!