Affordable, capable e-mail

MDaemon Pro 5.0.4 adds LDAP to its rich roster of capabilities

MANY E-MAIL SERVERS have ballooned into expensive, high-maintenance, resource-hungry collaboration platforms. Although there is definitely a need for such do-it-all solutions, sometimes all a company requires is a lightweight, highly configurable server that handles only e-mail but does it exceedingly well. MDaemon Pro 5.0.4, the latest release of Alt-N Technologies' Windows mail server, is aggressively priced for the small-to-midsize business market. Yet enterprise customers will appreciate MDaemon Pro's high-end features, including multiple domains, customizable Web interfaces for user email access and administration, powerful protection against spam and undesirable content, and full support for LDAP user directories.

After our testing, we judged MDaemon Pro to be almost perfect, subtracting a scant amount of points for minor documentation deficiencies and a few overcrowded configuration dialog boxes.

We tested MDaemon Pro 5.0.4 on a Windows 2000 server with dual AMD Athlon MP 1800+ CPUs and 1GB of RAM. Downloading the tiny self-extracting installation file, which is only 9MB in size, provides the first clue to how tight this server really is. The software requirements call for just 8MB of RAM and 30MB of disk space. The software will run on any 32-bit version of Windows, including desktop editions such as Windows 95/98, Windows Me, and Windows XP.

This allows cash-strapped organizations to set up world-class mail services on inexpensive hardware -- Linux-style -- or to use MDaemon Pro as an affordable back up to a larger corporate mail server.

But don't infer that MDaemon Pro won't scale.

We put MDaemon on a beefy Athlon server with a fast Internet connection and banged on it mercilessly using a mail-client simulator. In addition to ordinary messages of various sizes, we sent MDaemon Pro a barrage of poorly formed messages, forgeries, and huge binary attachments (some with viruses) and even left some SMTP connections hanging open. MDaemon Pro's efficient multithreading ensures a rapid response to connection requests, even when the server is heavily loaded.

MDaemon Pro's wealth of configuration options evidence Alt-N's intimate understanding of Internet standards and protocols. E-mail wonks, particularly those migrating from ultraconfigurable Linux or Unix mail servers, will be delighted by the minute control afforded them by MDaemon Pro's administrative interfaces. More humble administrators will find MDaemon Pro's setup wizard and standards-friendly defaults a good fit, but they may feel dazed as they explore some of the server's more complicated configuration screens.

Fortunately, MDaemon Pro stores all of its configuration data in text files. You can back up, restore, and transfer settings simply by copying files from one folder to another.

The configuration file formats are documented, so it's possible to manipulate such things as user accounts and mailing lists from a script (Perl or JScript, for example) or a text editor.

Alt-N also enhanced its API in Version 5, adding COM (Component Object Model) support for interfacing MDaemon Pro with Visual Basic, Windows Scripting Host, and Active Server Pages.

It's impossible to enumerate MDaemon Pro's huge catalog of features in so small a space; detailing only the new features in this release would still fill several pages. The server's handling of security, unsolicited e-mail (spam), and inappropriate use of company mail systems deserve special mention.

With Version 5, MDaemon Pro added virus scanning as an optional plug-in. The virus engine, licensed from Kaspersky Lab, integrates tightly with MDaemon Pro's administrative interface. At the administrator's option, messages containing infected content can be cleaned (the virus rendered harmless), stripped of their infected attachments, moved to a quarantine directory, or deleted. By default, virus definitions are updated daily.

Even without the anti-virus plug-in, MDaemon Pro can trap some viruses and other malicious mail. The server's content filter scans headers, message bodies, and attachments looking for virus signatures or executable file extensions. An administrator also can use the filter to scan for objectionable text in the message body or for a header that identifies a broadcast e-mail service. MDaemon Pro will add a header that allows email clients such as Outlook Express to move suspect messages to a special folder.

No mail server can eliminate spam, but MDaemon Pro puts up as thorough and varied a defense as we've seen. Relaying -- tricking your server into forwarding spam to other domains -- is blocked by default. SMTP connections from spam-friendly domains such as Hotmail, Yahoo, and AOL can be selectively refused or tagged as suspect. A powerful new feature performs real-time DNS validation on incoming connections, including reverse lookups that catch many forged addresses. Finally, MDaemon Pro will consult Internet databases of known spammers and the dial-up accounts often used to broadcast junk mail.

As is true throughout MDaemon Pro, the spam-blocking engine is both highly configurable and keeps exquisitely detailed logs. Most companies will probably flag suspected spam and send it along to users, but those who want to fight back will enjoy, as we did, watching MDaemon Pro slam the door on spammers by terminating their SMTP sessions. This new release automatically adds detected spammers to its list of blocked IP addresses, rendering your server invisible to them for future attempts.

There are many other new features as well, including a significantly improved version of the slick, capable WorldClient Web mail interface, which is now customizable. Alt-N now offers a free companion LDAP server called LDaemon that's based on the open-source slapd. LDaemon can be used instead of or alongside Active Directory.

The common features that longtime MDaemon users take for granted such as flexible administration (via console, remote console, Web, e-mail, script, or text editor), autoresponders, file catalogs, account quotas, IMAP (Internet Messaging Access Protocol) public folders, Windows domain password synchronization and self-administering mailing lists are still done beautifully.

Alt-N has added periodic software update checks (a one-year update subscription is standard), with an option to receive special urgent update alerts. The urgent alerts are sent as e-mail messages that trigger MDaemon Pro to immediately download a new release.

Alt-N Technologies has tapped to distribute MDaemon Pro and its lesser counterpart, MDaemon. Deerfield's graduated pricing starts at $110 for six mailboxes. A fully loaded server with unlimited mailboxes and the anti-virus plug-in costs about $2,600. Compared with other commercial email solutions, and considering the specialized administrative knowledge and effort needed to put together a comparable Linux solution, MDaemon Pro strikes us as a bargain.