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I Only Made One Mistake…One Was Enough

February 24, 2015

Rodney, the email system is broken.

I just set it up on Saturday. What’s wrong?

We can send email, but no one can send us any email.

I’ll come look at it.

I was an expert. When it came to Microsoft Exchange I was one of the very top experts in the world. I worked for Microsoft writing Exchange training materials. I’d written a popular book on Microsoft Exchange.

I taught people to use Exchange.

And I was an idiot. But, I didn’t know that right away.

That night I drove to my mother’s office to look at her Microsoft Exchange server. I had a tough time convincing her to install email in the first place. I know it sounds strange, but there were companies who were late to embrace email. Why? . . .I’m not completely sure I can explain.

But, now I’d installed it and it was broken. Couldn’t be my fault. They must have done something. I arrived and started looking at their Exchange server. It was tucked away in a small wiring close. I quickly checked through all the easy stuff. I finally narrowed the problem down to a single folder. It was a folder where mail was queued up before being routed to the internet. The only problem was that the files never got to that directory.

They were routed properly, but then just disappeared before they got to the queue directory. Using Windows Explorer I navigated away to other folders, but no matter what I tried I kept going back to the queue directory and it continued to be empty.

Now, remember I was an expert at this. It couldn’t have been something stupid. . could it? But, how could that stupid folder be empty? Could an empty folder actually not be empty?

An idea started to tickle the back of my mind. And a sinking feeling. I clicked the START button and selected RUN: CMD. A command prompt appeared. Using archaic DOS commands, I navigated to the empty folder. To list the contents of a directory in DOS you type DIR.

Instantly the screen started to scroll past faster than I could read. The empty folder had thousands and thousands of files in it. After a couple minutes I typed CTRL-C to break out of the list.

What happened?

Two problems. First, I screwed up. Me, the world famous Exchange expert forgot one little setting. I had forgotten to uncheck a box that said “Allow others to send email through this server.”

By leaving that option checked, I basically said that other other sites could hand their email to my mother’s email system and route it to the internet that way. That’s not a bad thing, is it? In fact, what wouldn’t you want to set that up?

And that was the second problem: Spammers.

Remember that this was when the Internet was in its infancy. Spammers would search the internet for open relays and then use them to flood email boxes with thousands (millions?) of emails.

I don’t understand virus writers, but spammers are pretty simple to understand. It’s all about the money. They are the petty thieves of the internet. Especially in the early days before they teamed up with the virus writers, spammers wanted to get as many emails out to as many people as possible. They didn’t need a high percentage. Sending out 1,000,000 emails and get just a 0.1% response rate and you’ve got 1,000 customers. Sell them a $25 product that cost you $5 and a single email campaign could earn you $20,000.

They were thieves because eventually systems on the internet started blocking them. So, they would look for open relays like I had left them and they would use (abuse) those relays until the relay got blocked and then they’d move on to the next location.

Fixing the relay host issue was simple. What why hadn’t I seen the files in Windows Explorer? Why were they invisible in one view and suddenly visible in the other?

Windows Explorer looks at ALL the files in a folder before it shows you ANY of the files. So, when I was using Explorer to look at the queue directory, Windows was looking at the files. . .and looking. . .and looking. And I left before it finished, assuming it would ever finish.

DOS has the advantage of displaying a file at a time. At the command prompt it took over ten minutes to clear the directory.

What lesson did I learn?

First, I’m not as smart as I thought I was. . I rarely am. Second, the internet is a dangerous place. You should approach it assuming that someone is out there trying to take advantage of you.

I’ve been reminded of both lessons on a regular basis.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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