How many techs does it take to make e-mail work?

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It seems like a simple enough request: Please make my email work every time I want it. But it’s easier said than done my friends. Unfortunately, email is a complicated and inefficient system that tends to break in a lot of places. Let me take a few minutes to show you why, and when to call whom when your email is down.

How Email works:

Email is actually a function of your Domain Name –so when you buy a Web address such as www.greatcompany.com the email address comes with two records — an “A” record and an “MX” record. The “A” record tells the Internet where your website is hosted, and the MX record tells the Internet where your mail is hosted. While you usually have just one vendor for your email and web address (the A and MX records), they are really two different things.

Once an email is sent to your email address — nancy@greatcompany.com, it is sorted by the MX record to an email server where it is stored until you retrieve it from a computer. Small companies often have their email hosted with the same vendor as their website hosting. Larger companies often have an email server vendor.

From the email server, it travels through your internet provider’s cables (think; cable or telephone company lines) until it reaches the office. Then the email is retrieved either through an email software like Outlook or through a web browser.

Where does email break?

As you can see, email has a lot of moving pieces that can all break.

However, in my experience, 99% of the time, email breaks at the desktop level. And most of the support calls come into the hosting company, which is the wrong vendor to call. The host company can’t help with your desktop email retrieval because that’s not really what they do.

Hosting support mostly deals with problems related to the website (the “A” record) — things like security certificates, server virus attacks, troubleshooting crashed websites, restarting servers, and other macro issues. They are responsible for the general health of the websites they host. The host will make sure the email is able to be created and stored on the server, but after that they are out of their range of expertise.

Who do I call to keep my email working?

Every business with more than five computers really should have a service agreement with a network services company. This kind of company works inside your office every so often, and their job is to tie all of your computers together onto a network with a server in order to share files. This vendor is also your lifeline or “phone a friend” service for any internal (inside the four walls of your office) technical issue. When your email goes down, this is who you call.

Why are tech people so territorial?

We’re not. Believe me when I say that if we could help you with everything, we would. I stay awake at night haunted by the desperation in the voices of some of my callers. Here’s the thing; if I start telling you to reset things on your desktop computer in order to pull email in, then the person who manages your office network won’t know how to fix it next time. And they’ll be mad at me because they’ll have to reconfigure your machine from scratch because you probably won’t be able to tell them what I changed.

And your network manager shouldn’t change your Web site hosting passwords or add software modules to your web site, because then I won’t know how to help bring your site live if it gets attacked or has a software failure.

We work in partnership. And we respect each others’ territory because we have to. It’s for the greater good, really. And if all goes well with your configurations, hopefully you won’t need to call anyone. Stay safe out there…

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.