Extranets - e-mail only systems

E-mail is a low-cost way to create an extranet and connect with your clients. You do not need a web site - you simply need to be able to send and receive e-mail.

This page discusses some of the mainstream e-mail only options and the key issues that you will need to consider if you want to merge your e-mail based extranet seamlessly with your in-house systems. Topics include:

There are limitations to e-mail technology, but this does not matter if an e-mail-only system lets you achieve your objectives.

Extranet Automation

Automating your e-mail extranet functions will save you time and money (and of course errors). A basic system can be quickly set up at a low cost (FREE!!). Even a sophisticated and automated e-mail only extranet system shouldn't cost more than $1000-$2000 to set up - and most of this will be training and set up rather than software. You should recoup your investment in a few weeks due to time savings and the elimination of processing errors.

A 100% automatic e-mail only extranet should be capable of performing the following tasks:

  • checking for new e-mail messages at user-defined times
  • downloading e-mail messages automatically
  • separating and (optionally) decrypting files attached to e-mail messages
  • identifying who sent e-mail and storing this information outside of the e-mail system
  • storing a copy of e-mail messages outside of the e-mail system
  • (optionally - and depending on rules you define) sending confirmation messages to senders
  • (optionally - and depending on rules you define) forwarding messages to other people

In addition to being 100% automated, note we are recommending stripping out ALL of the information contained in the e-mail message. This means that the contents are available to external programs, and therefore more complete system automation is possible.

For example, e-mail attachments might be files from customers that can be automatically imported into your Sales Order Entry system. The e-mail address and the message contents could be automatically added to your CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software, or automatically tie the message to an existing customers' record in your CRM system.

E-mail Software Considerations

Not surprisingly different e-mail clients have different automation capabilities.

The most widely used e-mail "client" is Outlook Express - it comes free with Microsoft Explorer. Outlook Express is best suited to single-user systems.

Although it is very popular, Outlook Express "embeds" attachments within the mail message. (Attachments are files you send along with your e-mail message. The files can be anything - pictures, documents, databases. Anyone who can intercept your e-mail message can view your attachments as well - UNLESS your message is encrypted.)

With Outlook Express, when you receive a message with an attachment you have to save the attachment as a separate file using a "File Save As" procedure. While this is not an issue for personal mail, but from a business point of view it takes time and money, and is potentially error-prone.

Another issue with Outlook Express is virus protection. Hackers seem to specifically target Outlook Express, and although Microsoft and Anti-Virus software publishers do their best, Outlook Express is consistently a target.

To summarise, although Outlook Express is free, the downsides are:

  • automation features are relatively limited
  • attachments are embedded
  • it is a favourite target for hackers

Pegasus Mail and Eudora Mail are two FREE products that can overcome the shortcomings of Outlook Express. If you are going to operate your e-business extranet without a web server, you should check out both of these packages.

Alternatively, you should consider upgrading from Outlook Express to Microsoft Outlook.

How to automatically extract e-mail attachments from Outlook Express and MS-Outlook

EMU (EMail Utility) overcomes one of the shortcomings of Outlook Express (and it's big brother/sister "Outlook").

With one click on a desktop icon you can "detach" embedded files from your e-mail and save them in a folder of your choice.

EMU is US$22. A demonstration version can be downloaded from http://www.download.com.

EMU saves you time and makes sure that you can clearly identify ALL e-mail attachments.

EMU can be automated by using the free Task Scheduler that comes with Windows. You can set up multiple sets of rules which means that you can save different types of files into different folders.

To summarise, if you want to continue to use Outlook Express AND automatically link your e-mail system with your in-house systems, then EMU and Task Scheduler will do the job error-free.

Security - low-cost firewalls, anti-virus, and encryption

Security is an integral part of your extranet.

You need to build in safeguards that protect you from:

  • malicious hackers who might want to take over your in-house computer
  • viruses that arrive via e-mail or via programs you install on your PC
  • people seeing sensitive messages between you and your customers

A class of software called "Firewall" software protects you from hackers. Not all firewall software is equal. We use ZoneAlarm. This software runs silently in the background monitoring your Internet sessions. If it detects an unauthorised program trying to access the Internet, or someone trying to access your machine via the Internet, it will let you know. Unlike some firewall systems, ZoneAlarm does not interfere with your day to day operations. Click here to download a FREE trial of version of ZoneAlarm.

Anti-Virus software protects you from rogue scripts or programs that at the very least can disrupt your day - and at the very worst destroy the contents of your computer. Most viruses are spread via e-mail. There are many anti-virus packages available - most of which you can update each week via the Internet to keep your protection current. Our preferred package is Norton Anti-Virus. Although the Norton Anti-Virus is not a free product, it is worth its' weight in gold. (Even if you are using Anti-Virus software, NEVER open e-mail attachments with the extension .VBS. Visual Basic Scripts are commonly used by virus authors).

Encryption software options are many and varied. Most packages require you and the person sending you the e-mail to have the same encryption software. A mainstream option is PGP (http://www.pgp.com). Pegasus Mail users need PGP as well as a plug-in called QDPGP. Another option is to encrypt just attachments. DataSAFE lets you encrypt MS-Windows files and send them via the Internet WITHOUT the recipient need the program installed. The one-off cost is less than $US30. See http://www.data-encryption.com for details.

The simplest option is to automatically - and dynamically - encrypt data files using WinZip (http://www.winzip.com) or PKZip (http://www.pkware.com) . To improve security you could use a different password for every message you encrypt - although this might become a maintenance chore.

About the only downside to using WinZip or PKZip is that they are not a 100% secure solution - even with different passwords each week.

The WinZip Help files states: "WinZip® uses the industry standard Zip 2.0 encryption format. Password protecting files in a Zip file provides a measure of protection against casual users who don't have the password and are trying to determine the contents of your files. The Zip 2.0 encryption format, however, is not as secure as DES and the RSA public key formats used by programs such as PGP, and does not provide absolute protection against determined individuals with advanced cryptographic tools."

However, cracking files encrypted WinZIP or PKZip files - even with code cracking tools - is a time consuming process. Also, it is unlikely that anyone "sniffing" for information packets would consider cracking a WinZip or PKZip file - they are after easier offerings - like unprotected credit card numbers being sent via e-mail (Don't EVER send your credit card details via e-mail - if you must, then break the credit card number up into 4 seperate e-mails and send each e-mail seperately).

To summarise - for day to day business encrypted WinZip or PKZip are likely to be just fine - especially if you keep changing passwords. But, if you need the more protection, use a PGP compatible product or DataSAFE.

Processing Incoming e-Mail Data Attachments Automatically

Once e-mail attachments and information contained within the body of e-mail messages are separated from your e-mail system, you can then process them using other in-house software. (See the notes on EMU for how to automate this).

Your ability to automate the complete process is dependent on many factors - for example data compatibility, whether your in-house system can automatically import new orders, etc., but you can create efficient and automated extranet systems using just e-mail.

See also: Server options | Brochureware Sites | Database-driven Sites | Peer-to-Peer options

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