ServersListserv, Serving Up E-mail Lists Since 1986

Listserv, Serving Up E-mail Lists Since 1986




Listserv: Mailing list server with Web-based list management

Listserv has been managing e-mail lists for nearly 20 years. Now in version 14.4, Listserv continues to build on its feature set to meet current needs, particularly when it comes to efficiency and antispam and antivirus defenses.

Mailing list servers do yeoman’s work, churning away behind the scenes — and behind their better-known mail server brethren — keeping alive one of the oldest Internet applications, the humble mailing list. Commonly called listservs, mailing lists “simply” create manageable channels for one-to-many and many-to-many e-mail relationships. Which isn’t actually so simple at all.

Whether an organization uses listservs to release announcements and promotions or thriving discussion communities to support products and services, the many permutations of listserv configuration and management can quickly seem like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Of course, e-mail and listserv are hardly new kids on the block. Listserv, the product, can credibly claim to have been there since the beginning. First launched in 1986, Listserv became one of the most popular mailing list managers, and it was commercialized in 1994. Now in version 14.4, Listserv continues to build on its feature set and scales to modern needs, improving its efficiency and building in antispam and antivirus defenses.

Mailing lists can range significantly in scope, from a small business announcement newsletter with dozens of recipients to a two-way discussion list at a large university with potentially thousands of participants. Listserv is available in three variations to meet organizational needs on this wide spectrum: Lite, Classic, and HPO (high performance).

For a product like Listserv, a long legacy cuts both ways. Its historical foundations remain apparent and are most appreciated by administrators with a strong knowledge of mailing list configuration. At the same time, its long history of service is also a proven track record.

For most listserv mangers the “Classic” version, which is the primary Listserv product, will suffice. The Lite version is targeted toward small mailing lists. It lacks mail merge, database connectivity, antispam, and antivirus features. The HPO version includes scaling enhancements for improved performance in highly demanding mailing list environments.

A mere 5 MB download, Listserv expands to 18 MB on installation. While Listserv performs well on modestly powered machines, storage capacity should be taken into consideration for large mailing lists with long-term archives. The Windows version of Listserv includes an InstallShield wizard that requests the basic information needed to get the server up and running. For access to Listserv’s Web-based management interface — which is used by both administrators and listserv subscribers — you must have an installed Web server on the Listserv host machine, such as Apache or Microsoft IIS.

Listserv’s Web-based management interface greatly simplifies the process of creating and managing mailing lists. Subscribers can also manage their own subscriptions, such as changing how they receive mailing list messages (e.g., daily or weekly) and unsubscribing themselves. A clever “wizards” feature bundles together the most common administration tasks so admins can save time hunting through strata of configuration menus. New to Listserv 14.4 is a message-posting applet available to list subscribers that can accept rich HTML with attachments.

Out of the box, the Web interface design is spartan at best. Most organizations will want to take advantage of Listserv’s extensive template features and wrap their own organizational designs around the Listserv functionality.

In the 14.4 release, Listserv has revamped its mail merge feature with what it calls “embedded” mail merge. Previously, to create customized mailing list messages that incorporated fields from a database, Listserv had to be paired with a limited set of LSMTP-compatible servers. With embedded mail merge, the merges are performed within Listserv itself, enabling the customer to use an SMTP server of choice. Because this can slow down Listserv’s performance, particularly for high-traffic mailing lists, the HPO version of Listserv distributes the merge processing across several “slave” servers, which it calls “distribute workers.”

New to HPO version 14.4 is background list maintenance, under which busy servers’ availability is prioritized during active periods. However, this is a single-threaded application for all versions of Listserv, and Listserv does not maximally benefit from the additional efficiency of multiprocessor or multicore CPUs.

For its antivirus protection, Listserv scans messages with its built-in F-Secure engine, available for the Windows and Linux versions. Other Listserv platforms can be configured to consult a Windows or Linux Listserv installation, if available, for remote virus scanning. New in 14.4 for Windows only is support for other third-party anti-virus scanners. Unlike F-Secure, Listserv cannot see or control the availability status of “foreign” virus scanners or know which particular viruses have been detected.

Smaller additions to 14.4 include a new “configuration-owner” keyword, which Listserv administrators can use to prevent list owners from also having access to change their list’s configuration. This keyword separates subscription management from overall list administration.

For a product like Listserv, a long legacy cuts both ways. Its historical foundations remain apparent and are most appreciated by administrators with a strong knowledge of mailing list configuration. At the same time, its long history of service is also a proven track record.

Pros: Cross-platform portability; High-performance scaling; Task-based management wizards.
Cons: Single-threaded architecture; Stark default interface; Limited virus scanning support outside of bundled F-Secure.

Reviewed by: Aaron Weiss
Original Review Date: 10/26/2005
Original Review Version: 14.4

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