Directory Assistance

by Joel Snyder and Jan Trumbo

Linking corporate electronic mail systems has become a way of life for network managers. But the hardest part isn't getting the pieces to talk to each other, it's building a single, unified directory.

We tested OpenVMS-based directory synchronization products from Alisa Systems (AlisaMail), Digital Equipment Corp. (MAILbus Directory Synchronization Utility, or DSU), Innosoft International (PMDF-LAN and PMDF X.500) and Wingra Technologies (Missive Directory Assistance). We'll be testing the Unix-based ones in a future issue.

Alisa's AlisaMail provides the greatest amount of automated directory coordination for the largest number of electronic mail systems. Although no e-mail network runs without some manual intervention, AlisaMail--once we got it started--required the least amount of tweaking and fiddling. In more restricted environments running just MHS, cc:Mail, and Digital's MailWorks, Wingra's Missive also worked, although without the performance and flexibility of Alisa.

If you want to venture into the wild world of X.500 or need more e-mail systems than Alisa supports, Innosoft and Digital both provide tool kits to build generic directory synchronization engines. Using either package will take much more work, but both give you the additional flexibility a big e-mail network might require.

Alisa Systems AlisaMail

Alisa's AlisaMail is a full-featured e-mail backbone that connects to most popular LAN-based electronic mail systems, and it supports global directory support and synchronization. We installed AlisaMail and brought up links to cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail, SMTP mail, QuickMail and Mailworks (formerly known as All-in-One Mail).

Alisa also supports links to Novell's MHS, Microsoft Mail for AppleTalk Networks, and X.400 mail networks. With Alisa's gateways, you get a robust, reliable and manageable gateway to the outside world. Alisa also offers a broader range of off-the-shelf directory synchronization than anyone.

Although Alisa Systems normally sends someone out to install its product, we did it on our own without major hang-ups. On the other hand, we do this for a living. We'd advise first-timers to let Alisa come in and do the installation.

Since any directory synchronization server needs to maintain a single central database of all directory information, AlisaMail includes an OEM version of the Sybase relational database product. While this gives additional flexibility in building exactly the directory you need, Alisa has hidden the complexity of Sybase behind its product. The only way to get to the data is through Alisa-supplied software. This approach also consumes resources quickly. Before our directory had a single user in it, AlisaMail ate up about 12 MB of system memory and 140 MB of disk space.

Synchronizing Easy and Automatic

Synchronizing with AlisaMail is a highly automated process. It includes software to run on each LAN-based e-mail system, and it pretends to be the directory synchronizer for that e-mail system. For example, with QuickMail, AlisaMail appears as a QuickMail server offering one or more MailCenters. But because of a limitation in the number of QuickMail addresses one MailCenter can have, you must spread out large AlisaMail directories among multiple "virtual" MailCenters.

Synchronizing our QuickMail and Microsoft Mail network was straightforward. QuickMail's directory synchronization system automatically sends all QuickMail addresses to AlisaMail using a MailCenter-to-MailCenter protocol. This eventually becomes a mail message in Alisa's directory synchronization agent.

Linking to Microsoft Mail requires a dedicated gateway PC to pass both e-mail and directory information into AlisaMail. This PC replaced Microsoft's own SMTP gateway. The gateway periodically pulled down all directory information and mailed it to the AlisaMail directory synchronization agent.

Once the directory synchronization agent received both sets of directory information, it generated updates, which it mailed back to each of the LAN e-mail systems for propagation into their directories. Once we got it set up, the whole process ran automatically.

AlisaMail can provide tight control over which addresses get propagated. For example, because we had some users we didn't want to appear in the master directory, we set up an exclusion list that kept them from being propagated to the other e-mail systems.

Because Alisa pretends to be the directory synchronization server for each network, any limitations in that e-mail system's approach to synchronization become problems for the whole network.

Searching is Flexible

Once we built synchronized directories, we were eager to use them. You access the central directory through the People Finder utility, which adds plenty of flexibility. For instance, in Microsoft Mail we only had 30 characters to enter information for each user. In Alisa's directory, we were able to store additional information, including title, location, address, and phone and fax numbers. It can also hold pictures.

People Finder clients are available for Macintosh, DOS and OpenVMS systems, but not for Unix systems. It works over any LAN transport.

Our DOS users used a "shadow" of the directory running on another DOS system, and could search for users using many different criteria, such as name, title, organization and location. Searches can be exact or fuzzy, including the ever-popular "sounds like." For DOS-based mail systems such as cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail and some Global MHS systems, People Finder is available as a pop-up at the address prompt or as a command-line application. Macintosh users bring up People Finder as a separate application. They can search using the same capabilities DOS users have, and then cut and paste addresses into their electronic mail application.

Because each user told People Finder what his or her preferred e-mail system was, it always showed e-mail addresses in the correct format.

Not Just Directory Synchronization

Because AlisaMail is an e-mail hub as well as a directory server, AlisaMail can use the directory to help deliver mail from the outside world. For local e-mail, this is no big deal, since you've already got a copy of the directory. However, if you have unsynchronized mail systems, such as SMTP mail, this is a powerful feature.

To use this automatic directory search, all we had to do was send e-mail through the hub with an address of "first.last." This asks AlisaMail to try to guess someone's real e-mail address. If "first.last" is unique, Alisa forwards that mail to the end user. If not, it bounces it back with the appropriate error messages.

Alisa's directory will also automatically generate correct return addresses for anyone using the directory for outgoing mail. This means that if you have an e-mail system that generates "ugly" return addresses, AlisaMail will clean them up for you as they pass through the hub. For example, users on our Mailworks mail system use their initials as mail addresses. Alisa changes those to a full "First.Last" format for anything leaving the system.

The major problem with Alisa's approach to foreign mail handling is that you cannot easily send to anyone on the Internet (or any other foreign mail system that isn't synchronized to your own) without entering your correspondent into the directory. If you are willing to wait until someone sends you a message, AlisaMail isn't too bad. It will automatically register your correspondent's e-mail address and you can then easily reply to the message.

If you want to be the first to write, though, you have to use your e-mail system to create an address that ranges from convoluted to downright ugly. For example, in Microsoft Mail, we had to send our message to a magic gateway address inside the AlisaMail hub and place the real Internet e-mail address in the text of the message.

Innosoft PMDF

Innosoft's approach to directory synchronization is, like Digital's, very tool-oriented. The base product, PMDF-MTA (Message Transfer Agent) doesn't talk to any LAN-based e-mail systems directly. Add PMDF-LAN, and you get direct links to Microsoft Mail for PC networks, cc:Mail MHS and WordPerfect Office. To synchronize dissimilar e-mail systems, link all these to PMDF-X500, which provides an X.500-format database to store and synchronize directory information. (Note: the ITU-TS Recommendations covering the directory are commonly called "X.500" even though there are 11 Recommendations, only one of which is numbered X.500 in the series.)

To use Innosoft's PMDF X.500 to synchronize various systems, we first had to install their base PMDF product, a high reliability e-mail backbone system. Although PMDF connects many different LAN-based and mainframe-based e-mail systems, a subset of those is supported by the directory synchronization product. We used PMDF to build links to our cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail and Mailworks systems, as well as SMTP (Internet), BITNET and X.400 networks. Innosoft includes tools to synchronize DDS, cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail and WordPerfect Office directories.

Installation wasn't difficult using the "cookbook" approach and automated configuration procedures. We spent about two days getting everything up and running smoothly.

PMDF X.500 stores directory information in an X.500 database. In the X.500 world, the Directory System Agent (DSA) is responsible for maintaining all directory information. Innosoft has based its DSA X.500 directory database on QUIPU--the ISODE Consortium's X.500 DSA. PMDF X.500 uses a combination of disk and memory to store directory information for best response time without adding a relational database.

Because products like cc:Mail and Microsoft Mail don't really have directories, it's up to the network manager to fill in all of the other interesting X.500 information for each user.

Like Digital's DDS, storing information in X.500 directories is a mixed blessing. By using a commonly accepted format and a distributed database, directory synchronization can be combined with directory access from intelligent mail products that will search the directory as part of composing an e-mail message. For example, Innosoft includes pop-up forms and browsers to let OpenVMS users find X.500 directory entries from within the standard VMSmail and DECwindows mail applications. Unfortunately, if you're using Microsoft Mail and cc:Mail, you must use their internal directory formats.

Synchronizing: Build It and They Will Come

Innosoft's PMDF X.500 is similar in scope to Digital's DSU in that it provides a tool kit which we had to use to build our own directory synchronization scheme. If you don't want a centralized back-end database, Innosoft doesn't require X.500. PMDF-LAN will synchronize e-mail directories to each other but not to a central database.

Internally, PMDF handles everything as Internet-standard e-mail using SMTP and MIME message and addressing formats. Any time a PC LAN user wants to send a message outside the LAN, the recipient's address looks like an Internet-style SMTP address.

PMDF relies on the network manager to build a scheduler to export and import directory information automatically at the appropriate time. Because we were doing this as a test, we manually applied updates to each directory rather than building the necessary scripts.

As network directory information percolated up to the X.500 directory, we updated the X.500 directory and generated update commands for each of the other electronic mail systems.

As in Digital's DSU, most of the process is left to you. You have to build procedures to extract, reconcile and then redistribute the information to the directories. PMDF's synchronization does not replace or work with the directory propagation systems of each e-mail package.

Searching the Directory

Directory searching with PMDF X.500, because it uses an X.500 directory, benefits from a suite of freeware applications to browse X.500 directories. Innosoft includes a browser for both command-line and X window system access. OpenVMS e-mail users can also invoke Innosoft's pop-up directory search to browse the directory and select an address for automatic inclusion in a particular message.

LAN-based e-mail packages get the directory information as part of directory propagation, so they don't need X.500 browsers. If you use X.500 but don't propagate every address into each e-mail system, Innosoft provides Microsoft Windows, Windows NT and Macintosh X.500 client browsers.

Innosoft also integrates the X.500 directory for both incoming and outgoing mail. Incoming mail is handled automatically, with fuzzy name matching and feedback to assist correspondents in finding the proper person. For example, because there are multiple instances of "J Snyder" in our e-mail system, a message sent to "JSnyder@Opus1.COM" would return a list of the Snyders along with other relevant information, such as phone number or title.

Outgoing mail from the organization is handled by tables within PMDF that rewrite return addresses to a canonical format determined by the system manager.

Digital Directory Synchronization Utility

Digital's DSU is really a tool kit for building directory synchronization systems. Digital sells a MAILbus Directory Synchronizer (which we tested) and an X.500 Directory Synchronizer.

MAILbus DSU uses Digital's Distributed Directory Service (DDS) as a centralized database for all directory information. DDS is included with Message Router, Digital's first-generation mail back end.

Digital sees this product as a tool to leverage their consulting services and normally sells it as part of a larger consulting contract where they build the directory synchronization system using off-the-shelf and customized Digital products.

Digital's DSU doesn't have any way of talking directly to any of the LAN e-mail systems, so we used one of the other vendor's gateways to move directory information to the DSU host. We also wrote a short mail-enabled application on the host side to pull the directory out of an incoming e-mail message automatically and kick off a directory synchronization cycle.

Because the DSU doesn't know how it's going to get its directory information, Digital defined RDF (Record Description Files), a special data definition language to specify exported and imported directory data formats.

Synchronizing Is a Manual Process

We built the RDFs to synchronize Microsoft Mail for PC networks and cc:Mail with our existing DDS database. Digital actually provides the Microsoft Mail RDF as an example of how to synchronize PC mail systems, but building the cc:Mail RDF wasn't very difficult; it was just a matter of identifying which fields contain which information, and mapping them into a common database format.

RDF file logic is fairly rudimentary. Digital includes special support for generating people's names, mostly because the personal name is used as a mailbox indicator in most LAN-based e-mail systems. Other rule-based logic, such as changing routing for a particular department has to be handled separately from DSU. For example, we tried to force e-mail to a particular remote site with routing information to make it flow over our X.400 connection instead of through the normal Microsoft Mail network connections. To do this, we had to write a simple processor that ran after the RDF conversion.

Our first task was to use the Microsoft Mail Import Utility to dump the directory information out of a Microsoft Mail network into a file. Then, we mailed that file to the DSU host, which extracted the data from the e-mail message and imported it into the DDS.

Once it had imported all our directories, DSU generated update lists that told each system how to change its directory to match the central DDS directory. DSU's update lists were in a format acceptable to each of the PC e-mail systems, thanks to complementary RDF files that we also put together.

Unfortunately, there is no way to ship the update instructions to the LAN-e-mail systems and have their directory import utilities apply the updates automatically using Digital's tools. We could have written a periodic batch script to go to the DSU host, grab the directory deltas and apply them to each e-mail system. What we couldn't do is tie the DSU directly into Microsoft Mail and cc:Mail automatic directory synchronization systems.

Digital doesn't have anything like Alisa's People Finder to let users easily search corporate directories. To find anything in the DDS, you would have to use the cumbersome command-line interface of the DDS management tool--MBMAN.

Wingra Missive

We installed Wingra's e-mail backbone product, Missive, and brought up links to our cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail and Mailworks e-mail systems along with connections to the Internet over SMTP and to BITNET using Wingra's Jnet product. Missive also supports links to Lotus Notes and Novell's MHS.

Wingra's Directory Assistance is an extension to Digital's DSU. Combined with Missive, it gives you directory links between cc:Mail, Global MHS and DDS, but not Microsoft Mail.

Missive, like Digital's DSU, uses the DDS as a database to store directory synchronization information. But unlike Digital's DSU, Directory Assistance is fully automatic. Once we put Wingra's PC software on the cc:Mail post office, everything ran without significant intervention. Missive Directory Assistance uses e-mail messages to pass the directory updates around.

Wingra has also added a simple rule-based facility for modifying address entries as they pass through Directory Assistance. Although this is not designed to filter out specific addresses, it does allow some reformatting of name information.

Synchronizing: It's Automatic

We used Missive Directory Assistance to synchronize our cc:Mail directory with DDS. Installing Missive is, like installing all e-mail backbones, not for the faint of heart. We set up our gateway PC and the Missive core in a little over two days, with a few calls to Wingra for support. The gateway PC is dedicated to exchanging mail between cc:Mail and the Missive backbone.

Once we had mail flowing, we added Wingra's cc:Mail-specific directory import/export programs and scheduler to the gateway PC. Once we configured all the software and created the appropriate rules files, the synchronization process proceeded automatically.

cc:Mail updates, generated at predetermined intervals, are sent to the Missive hub and eventually make their way to DSU and then into the DDS. On the OpenVMS side, Missive periodically kicks off a job to ask the DSU for updates for the cc:Mail directory. These flow through Directory Assistance's rules and generate an update file. The cc:Mail gateway PC periodically checks for updates and, when it finds one, applies it to the cc:Mail directory.

It's a pretty automated process. Once we got everything set up and locked down, Missive happily kept our cc:Mail and DDS directories in sync without requiring much additional work.

Because Missive is based on Digital's DDS, there are no prebuilt tools for making directory searches easier. Missive does support automatic DDS searches when processing e-mail. As mail passes through the hub, Missive will reach into the DDS and attempt to figure out where a particular message should be delivered. We tested this by sending mail from the Internet to one of our cc:Mail users. As the user name, we picked the unique identifier Missive automatically generated from the user's last name. Missive correctly figured out where the user received mail and delivered it properly.

Joel Snyder is a senior partner with Opus One, Tucson, Ariz., specializing in networks and international aspects of information technology. He can be reached at jms@Opus1.com. Jan Trumbo is a postmaster at the University of Arizona's Telecommunications Department. She can be reached at trumbo@arizona.edu.

Vendor Information

PMDF-LAN and PMDF X.500:
$20,750. Innosoft International,
(800) 552-5444. sales@innosoft.com.

MAILbus Directory
Synchronization Utility (DSU):

$35,000 (Note: does not include any LAN gateways).
Digital Equipment Corp., (800) DIGITAL;
fax (800) 723-4431. info@digital.com,

Missive Directory Assistance:
$24,000. Wingra Technologies,
(800) 544-LINK, (608) 238-4454.
sales@wingra.com, http://www.wingra.com

AlisaMail: 5,000 users,
$53,000. Alisa Systems, (800) 628-3274;
fax (800) 792-4068. sales@alisa.com,

Unix Directory Synchronization Products To Watch

Network Computing will be looking at Unix-based directory synchronization in a future issue, but until we do, here are some of the products to keep an eye on.

  • Control Data Systems,
    Arden Hills, Minn., (800) 257-OPEN,
Includes both e-mail backbone and directory synchronization to a very wide variety of LAN-based e-mail systems, including cc:Mail, Beyond, Da Vinci, Digital's DDS, Microsoft Mail, IBM's OfficeVision/PROFS, Unix and VMS, and WordPerfect Office.Mail*Hub synchronizes directories to an internally maintained X.500 directory.

  • Worldtalk Corp.,
    Los Gatos, Calif.,
    (408) 399-4000.
Directory Synchronization Services supports an internal SQL database as a repository of directory information from cc:Mail, Hewlett-Packard OpenMail, Microsoft Mail, Lotus Notes and WordPerfect Office. Organizations that already have an X.500 directory can use that directory as a further place for Worldtalk to keep its databases.

  • Hitachi Computer Products, Santa Clara, Calif., (408) 986-9770.
SyncWare stores directory information in an X.400-format database on a Unix server. Agents run on cc:Mail, Global MHS, Microsoft Mail, QuickMail and Unix systems to ship their directory information to the centralized server for synchronization and updates.

  • OSIware, part of Infonet Software Solutions,
    Burnaby, British Columbia,
    (604) 436-2922.
Offers both an e-mail backbone (Messenger InterOFFICE) and an X.500 directory (Messenger 500). Directory synchronization of cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail, Global MHS, Quickmail, Digital DDS, HP OpenMail and IBM OfficeVision occurs inside of Messenger InterOFFICE, that can also propagate the directory into their X.500 product.

  • Linkage Software, Toronto, Ontario,
    (416) 862-7148,
Linkage Directory Exchange (LDE) emphasizes compatibility with IBM host environments. It synchronizes Shared Address Book, Enterprise Address Book (OV/MVS), OfficeVision/400, cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail, Verimation MEMO, HP OpenMail, and EMC2 mail directories.