How does email work?


Everybody uses email. Email is a service we've come to depend on in both our personal and professional lives. Email is important.  

When email is not working, it's VERY frustrating. Understanding the core components can help you troubleshoot issues, identify the weakest link, and improve the experience for yourself and your business. 

There are three main components impacting email flow:  

  • Domain Name System (DNS) records
  • An email "server" computer
  • An email "client" computer

What the heck is DNS? 

Specific to email, there's nothing complicated about the domain name system or domain name services. You can't tell the UPS guy or gal to deliver a package to your mom's house (mom @ her house) - you need to be much more specific! UPS needs to know the exact house number, on the exact street, in the exact city, in the exact state with the exact zip code and the exact country - there's an exact destination and as long as you provide it, UPS will deliver packages to that specific place anytime you ask. Email works the same way, every email sent to needs a very specific address in order to be delivered. This is where DNS comes in, but instead of an exact house we're looking for an exact computer. Mail Exchanger (MX) records, that are part of your DNS records, play this role. Anytime someone sends email to your email address, your MX records are used to determine where that specific email message should go. While DNS records and email are related, they are separate. Removing your address numbers from your house doesn't mean you don't have a house, it just means UPS wouldn't be able to find it. DNS also plays a very similar role when it comes to your website, your DNS 'a record' turns the address of a computer, like, which is hard to remember, to something that is easy to remember like When you get a new web site, you only need to change your 'a record' - don't let them tell you that you need to change DNS provides or your nameservers (the computers that hold your DNS records).  

Client-server architecture? 

For the past few decades businesses have depended on what's called a client-server architecture for email. This is how most businesses still operate today. 

There's nothing fancy about "client-server" architecture, it's actually just "computer-computer" architecture. A "server" is a computer with one job and the "client" is a computer with another job. With email, the computer that plays the role of "server" will run software like Exchange, IBM Lotus Notes, Novell GroupWise, VMware Zimbra, or other email software. It's actually this server-side computer that's handling email. This server can be in a closet, in a special room, or hosted with another company like Intermedia or GoDaddy. 

Your laptop (as well as your smartphone and tablet) plays to roll of the "client" computer and you can ask the server for your email in a few different ways. 

Post Office Protocol (POP) 

As the name suggests, this is an OLD option. In today's world POP has some major disadvantages. With POP the server doesn't store or keep track of our email, it simply passes it along. Since the server is not keeping track of anything, our devices are not synchronized. Delete a message on your phone and that message is still in your inbox on your PC and vice versa. If you put a message in your "Clients" folder in Outlook, it's not in that folder on your tablet, if that folder even exists on your tablet - the server is not keeping track of anything, including folders. POP only handles email, not Calendars or Contacts. 

  Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) 

IMAP is the most popular way in which people get their email from their email server. If you're using any email server besides Exchange with Outlook, you probably have your Outlook client software set up as IMAP. IMAP has some nice advantages over POP. With IMAP, the server does store and keep track of our email. If I read and delete a message on my phone, the server knows and lets every other client (computer) I'm using know - my PC, tablet, another computer, etc. IMAP also keeps track of things like Folders, so you can organize on one computer (client) and that change will be reflected on your other computers, like your phone, as well. IMAP only handles email, not Calendars or Contacts. 

Messaging Application Programming Interface (MAPI) 

If you're using Outlook with Exchange or the Google Apps Sync Connector for Microsoft Outlook, you're using MAPI. MAPI is very similar to IMAP except it extends additional functionality, the most important of which is the synchronization of Calendars and Contacts. If you've set up a smartphone to work with Exchange, you may recall using ActiveSync which will sync mail, calendar and contacts with your phone. MAPI and ActiveSync are both Microsoft protocols that will sync mail, calendar and contact data with a server.   

Things to note. 

If you're having email issues, there are three potential sources of the problem.

  1. Something's happened to your DNS records  
  2. Your email server computer is down.
  3. Something is wrong with your client computer.

99.9 times out of 100 the issue is #3. This will typically impact only one person or computer in the organization and regardless of how severe can almost always be fixed just like any other computer software program can be fixed - uninstall and reinstall the software, Microsoft Outlook for example. The client-side software and the computer it's running on are the most fragile part of the system. This is the part of the system that breaks the most frequently. It's not a question of "if" it breaks, it is a question of "when". Client-side software is complicated with a lot of (digitally) moving parts - like your car, it requires maintenance and periodic repairs. Leveraging a modern web service like Gmail removes the requirement for maintenance and repairs, this is why we recommend it so strongly. Leveraging Gmail essentially takes issues with the client-side computer out of the equation. 

#2 is the second biggest culprit of email issues. Issues with the email server will typically impact everyone in the organization. If this server sits in the closet of the business, there are multiple single points of failure that can bring this server down including something as simple as a power or network outage. Hosting this server with a professional provider, like Rackspace, improves the durability and redundancy of this server. Moving to a modern Cloud Computing architecture like Google Apps greatly improves this redundancy and durability even further. With Google, rather than leveraging a single server, you simultaneously leverage an entire fleet of data centers. This is how the search engine always works for example, it is the definition of reliability. 

Issues with DNS are the least common but they're a show stopper for the entire organization. You should keep your DNS nameservers with your registrar - companies like GoDaddy, Network Solutions, or HostGator. DNS services are typically reliable, a vast majority of issues are caused when DNS records are changed without a proper understanding of what impact these changes will have. A web site developer will say, "your new site is ready, we need to move your nameservers", when your DNS nameservers should stay put and only the 'a record' should be updated. DNS records are the keys to your digital identity, you should always own and control these records yourself. Giving someone access to your DNS records is like giving them the keys to your house, you want to do it sparingly and ideally only on a temporary basis.    

Gmail for Business

Umzuzu was founded to help people take advantage of modern technology services. Put bluntly; services that do more, cost less, and break less than their legacy counterparts. Understanding how email works, illustrates why Gmail for Business is such a tremendous value compared to any other option and will be for the foreseeable future.