The End of an Email Era: Why It Is No Longer Feasible to Run Local Email Services
The era of the local email server is over.
In the early 1990s during the dawn of the Internet Age, the emerging dial-up service providers such as AOL and Prodigy, all offered their customers not only access to the Web, but email and messaging services. Remember when everyone had an @aol.com email address? It became a standard practice for Internet Service Providers such as Comcast and Bellsouth to offer their customers email accounts from domains they owned, such as bellsouth.net.
When smaller Internet providers such as Skyrunner began to arrive on the scene, we followed suit, setting up local email servers and offering email accounts @skyrunner.net. Mountain Area Information Network, a pioneering provider of dial-up access, began offering a local alternative to Internet and email services in 1996. Thousands of folks in WNC got their first email account with MAIN, usually with a county-specific domain name such as @buncombe.main.nc.us. Almost a quarter century later, a surprising number of people are still using those old MAIN email accounts. In fact, the overall design and operation of the global email system has not changed very dramatically since it was first introduced.
That lack of evolution is part of the problem with the status of email today. It wasn’t long after the development of global email services that advertisers and scammers began to realize how easy it could be to send not just thousands but millions of unsolicited emails to addresses that were collected from the Internet. Spam, named after a famous Monty Python skit, became more prevalent than legitimate messages. Bots (automated processes) were developed to roam the web collecting email addresses. Other bots infected personal computers and sent out messages. Hackers devoted countless hours to hacking into and exploiting small email servers, turning them into spam factories. By 2006, nearly 90% of all email messages were spam. Spammers began generating billions of messages a day. That relentless torrent of unwanted messages has persisted to the present day.
Suddenly, managing an email server became much more complicated. Rather than simply making sure email was sent and received, system administrators had to contend with mountains of unwanted spam messages and virus laden attachments. Spam and virus filters were introduced. Securing an email server from attack became a game of whack-a-mole, with administrators always trying to stay a step ahead of hackers and spammers who were constantly scheming both to get messages past filters and to break into and exploit email accounts for spamming.
25 years later, not much has changed. Hackers have gotten smarter, and security experts have had to continuously up their game to keep them at bay. Automated bots are constantly scouring email and web hosting servers all over the world looking for vulnerabilities. Even the small email servers hosted at Skyrunner are scanned thousands of times an hour looking for access.
As Internet use grew, it became profitable for large companies to provide free email services in exchange for the advertising traffic that was driven by attracting users. Yahoo! was a pioneer of web-based, free (ad supported) email services, starting in 1997. Google followed with Gmail in 2004. These free services were attractive to end users for many reasons: the ease of a web-based interface that could be used from multiple devices, excellent spam filtering (because these large companies could afford to hire teams of technicians to manage their servers), and if you changed Internet providers you wouldn’t need to change your address.
In the meantime, the small server email providers began to really suffer. If their servers were hacked and used for spamming, the big services like Gmail and Hotmail would blacklist them, making it impossible to get messages out and frustrating customers. Constantly updating spam filters became a full time job, and even then it was never enough to satisfy the end users who had to endure endless unwanted messages in their in boxes. Because small providers could not afford big server-farms for redundancy, they had more outages, slow downs and crashes than the big players. Competition became not only unprofitable, but impossible.
While millions of small email servers are still running, the writing is on the wall: Without the massive resources of a corporate conglomerate, managing an email system at a level that will satisfy customer expectations is a lost cause.
Beginning in late 2020, Skyrunner will be moving all its email services into a cloud-based environment managed by Google. We will continue to offer fee-based email services with @skyrunner.net addresses, running in the cloud. All of the domains we took over in order to prevent a sudden loss of email and hosting services when MAIN folded will be integrated into the @skyrunner.net cloud services.
While we can’t deny having a small, sentimental pang of regret over shutting down the servers we’ve babied along for decades, that pang is far offset by the sigh — make that groan — of relief we will feel when we finally set down the Sisyphus Stone of small server management once and for all. Thank you all for your patience and understanding over the years.
— The Skyrunner Team