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Administrators need to stick together

I had an interesting interaction this week that I thought might make a good article. It all started with a bounced email.

Since early 2000, I've been administering live servers on the internet. Web servers, streaming media servers, file servers, RADIUS, weird crap you've never heard of, and even some things I never want to see again. Among those myriad of different server types, mail servers.

If there's one thing that has been a constant for the nearly 20 years I've been doing this, it's that mail server administrators have a certain unspoken pact. I have received the call, and I have made the call - when there is that one problem that requires two email server administrators to work together. Unlike web hosting, email is a different kind of animal. Although I may want your 10,000 users - I don't necessarily want to do the work to get them. Certainly, everyone is protective of their users - but if there is a problem, it benefits everyone if the server admins work together to solve it. If the wrong email doesn't get delivered, it's going to cause a support call - and nobody wants that.

Most of the time, it's something mundane. My user is expecting an email and it's not arriving. I check the logs and find that the sender is misconfigured in some way, or is on a blacklist, or - whatever it is. The problem isn't going to fix itself, so I do the research and make the call. After a short song and dance where we get acquainted and describe the problem - the collaboration begins. Maybe a few test messages go back and forth, then the issue is resolved. Of course, sometimes it's more complicated than that - but in a nutshell, it's the mutual respect and collaboration for the common good that wins the day.

That has been my experience for nearly 20 years. It doesn't happen often, and it usually is resolved quickly (within a day, maybe two or three if there is a weekend or holiday involved).

This was not the case on Friday. My goodness! I couldn't believe what I was being told by a BT Internet (British Telecommunications).

It started, as I described above, with a bounced email. The user could not receive our message, and the reason given by the receiving server was that it was being rejected as possible SPAM. I read it, it isn't spam - it was a harmless informational email regarding account info and login credentials for a product that was purchased. No spam filter in the world would classify this as spam. It didn't even have any links in it.

So, I spent a half hour on hold while calling BT Internet. The email help desk agent asked what my BT phone number was, and when I said that I didn't have one - I'm an ISP from America reporting an email problem, he said that he couldn't talk to me unless I was a BT Internet customer. I argued that I wasn't trying to make a change or access an account - I was reporting a communication problem to BT servers, but he was adamant that he could not speak to me. He told me that I needed to have the customer call to report the issue, and then he hung up on me.

OK... I get that they don't want to divulge customer information, but aside from it being their email address - I wasn't asking for anything to do with the account.

I hatched a plan. They won't talk to me about a customer account - what happens if I'm calling about a problem emailing a BT Internet corporate email address! It took a few minutes to dig up a valid email address (they're surprisingly stingy about it on their website), but I found one eventually - and it was perfect: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I copied and pasted the customer email (removing the credentials) and sent it to customer care with a message that I was unable to send it to their customer and that I expected it to bounce. My expectations were correct - the message bounced, and now I had the ammo I needed to talk to them about their problem.

Or so I thought.

I spent another half hour on hold, and this time I explained that I was unable to send an email to the BT corporate address. To my utter amazement - the rep told me that he couldn't speak to me about the issue because I was not a BT customer. I explained that I was trying to email a BT corporate account and that HE was the customer. Surely they would be concerned that outside entities are not able to send email to a BT corporate email address - but nope, he was not concerned one bit. I was informed that if customer care was not receiving some of their emails, they would need to call to report it.

I offered, the only way they would know if they weren't receiving some emails is if someone called to tell them. The rep agreed. Then I dropped the bomb on him: "THAT'S WHAT I'M DOING - I'M CALLING TO TELL YOU THAT THEY'RE NOT RECEIVING SOME OF THEIR EMAILS". The rep could only offer the same line as the other guy - I cannot speak to you unless you are a BT customer.

So, I gave up. I have no way to combat that kind of lunacy. It blows my mind that the rep had no idea what I was talking about, and was so quick to dismiss an issue like this.

I can only offer advise to anyone with BT. If you're having email troubles, they'll probably continue until you find an ISP that understands technology.