List Server Functionality for Those Without Deep Pockets

Maybe you want to host a discussi on list but your mail server lacks the functionality to do so effectively. Or maybe you don''t even have a mail server. In a recent issue of his Web Informant e-mail newsletter David Strom ran through the various options afforded to him when he decided to switch h is discussion list. In his review, he discusses a host of scalable options he considered.

These days, you have ple nty of choices when it comes to finding a provider who is willing to host your mailing list. Depending on the size of the list, whet her you want to support one-way or two-way communication among your members, and numerous other features, you probably have several dozen vendors who range from completely free to charging several hundred dollars a month for their services.

Maybe you want to host a discussion list but your mail server lacks the functionality to do so effectively. Or maybe you don't even have a mail server.

While it certain ly is nice having all these choices, with choice comes confusion. So let me try to clarify the options, and walk you through my own decision process on how these essays are distributed.

But before I get into that, I want to take a moment to recap the vario us technologies I have used over the five plus years:

  • The first 43 or so issues were sent out with custom perl scripts using Unix sendmail, sending out HTML-encoded messages. (Boy, was I ahead of my time.)
  • Intermind''s Communicator push cl ient software sent the next 20 or so issues, in parallel with those who wanted to continue to receive plain e-mail.
  • Next, in fall 1996 I experimented with PointCast''s software, and tried that for a few years, still in parallel with my perl/sendmail syst em.
  • In June 1997, I replaced sendmail with a series of Allaire''s Cold Fusion scripts combined with a list maintained in a Lotus Approach database.
  • Then around issue #90 in the fall 1997, I switched over to Revnet''s Groupmaster service.
  • Then, in May 1999, with issue #156, I began using the eGroups service.

For the past two years, I was a very satis fied customer of eGroups, but after the changeover to Yahoo! I became concerned. I got spoiled at eGroups having direct contact with both senior management and technical staff: If I ever had a problem, I could get someone on the phone and get something quickly res olved. Getting someone on the phone at Yahoo! headquarters is impossible, and finding the right person even to respond via email isn ''t easy.

Also, I wasn''t happy with the way Yahoo! decided to add its own footer to my messages. It was a small thing, but hey, this is my list and if I wanted to include advertisements I would have done so long ago.

Finally, I began to see some s igns of poor customer service when I read some of the postings on the various Yahoo!-maintained discussion lists geared toward list owners.

So, off to the technology races once again. I decided, rather than conducting an extensive evaluation, I would look at services for which I had good contacts with the principals involved.

First, I looked at Yahoo''s main competitor, Topica. I knew the CEO personally and had good relations with the company''s technical people, and I had a test list setup with them for se veral years. But Topica didn''t offer enough control over how the messages are sent, and it also includes self-advertisement in the footer of each message.

Next, I looked at hosting providers who charge a small monthly fee for hosting lists. There are doze ns of these operations now, and two good lists of them that provide details including pricing and the underlying technologies used: http://list-business.com/list-service-providers/ http://www.gweep.bc.ca/~edmonds/usenet/ml-providers.html

I then examined t wo technologies: Lyris and L-Soft''s Listserv. Both have been around long enough to be well-tested and well-developed. Both come fro m the command-line Unix world but have Web interfaces to help in the configuration. Lyris is used by Sparklist.com and Dundee.net: m y list would cost $50 per month on Sparklist and about half that on Dundee. (There are plenty of other Lyris providers, those are ju st the two I chose because of my own contacts.)

To get a feel for the web interface of Lyris, you can go to Dundee''s orderin g page. There you can see the various parameters needed to specify to setup your list. These parameters include things like whether or not subscribers can post messages, how subscription requests are handled, and the like. The interface is a single page, with all the options presented fairly clearly at http://www.dundee.net/isp/p-list.htm.

This article was originally published on Mar 21, 2001
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