Thursday, 25 April, 2002

Internet Mail Standards

Would you care to guess how many RFCs deal in some way with Internet Mail?  I submit to you this list ofInternet Mail standards from the Internet Consortium.  Count them if you like.  I lost track after 150.  No, I'm not smoking anything.

Oh, sure, you don't have to understand all of them in order to understand how mail works, and you can even implement an Internet Mail server without having to read all of the standards.  There are 60 documents, for example, that discuss message and transmission security—something that's not essential—at least not yet.  Still, 90 is way too many, and you have to understand most of those in order to build a mail server that will function in today's environment.  There are too many options, too many formats, too many obsolete commands and features that have to be supported for "compatibility with older systems ," too many contradictions, special cases, and ambiguities.  Individually, the documents are dry and poorly organized, and the writing is uninspired even for technical specifications.  Combined, the Internet Mail standards base is a big icky incoherent pile of goo.  It's a wonder that Internet Mail works as well as it does, and no wonder at all that people are finally starting to notice that there's a problem here.  What frightens me, though, is that everybody's proposing patches and extensions to the existing system rather than a totally new approach.  There's simply no way to extend or fix the current Internet Mail system (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP) to address the concerns that have been raised in the last 5 or 8 years.  Volume, security, and spam are proving to be very difficult problems requiring creative solutions that cannot reasonably be implemented on the current system. 

SMTP is history.  We just haven't found the replacement yet.  We best start looking soon, lest our email remain forever in 1989..