Ev's Alias Manager idea

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Ev has a neat idea for an application that he calls Alias Manager. It's a simple way to deal with having a team of people who are responsible for answering emails to one email alias, like the world famous president@whitehouse.gov, or the almost as famous customer-support@fogcreek.com. When I read his idea, I thought, smart Ev! We need that too!

Then I realized that FogBUGZ almost does it, but not quite. It would take about $10,000 of investment to add this feature to FogBUGZ. So I thought I'd ask my readers two questions:

-- Anonymous, May 03, 2001


Hi Joel,

Yep, we've written this. Actually we've been running it internally for some time, and the concept is working well. Basically I got tired of having to field all the support@capesoft.com questions myself, or manually forwarding them to other people internally.

After some discussion about it internally we decided that what we needed was a simple bridge between our Email system, and an internal News server. News after all allows us to do pretty much anything we like, but the data is stored in a common place where multiple people can get at it. Plus we can read each other's answers and thus learn from each other. And the technical writers can glean FAQ information for later docs.

We could of course have simply set up a public news server, but we didn't do this for 2 reasons. a) People's support questions aren't necessarily public material - especially if examples, and example data are included. and b) Most of our customers are used to, and happy with, email. They don't know what news is, or how to use it.

So the bridge (called NewsMail) basically receives questions in 1 mail box, and feeds them into a newsgroup. Then it monitors the group for any replies. As soon as there is a reply, it sucks it out the newsgroup, and emails it back to the client.

There were of course some wrinkles along the way which needed to be ironed out. Keeping all the messages nicely threaded in the News system was 1 challenge (users often reply to a reply) and so on.

We had planned for a public release early in June. But yes it'll be cheap, probably in the sub $50 type bracket.

There are also lots of features which can be added, and I'm sure as time goes by we'll be doing that, but for now it's serving it's purpose well...

I'll let you know as soon as it becomes available - now that I know Joel is interested that'll have to count as a motivation .. Actually quite a few of us here read your pages eagerly, hence the email above isn't my personal one, but a "generic" NewsMail one

Cheers Bruce Johnson CapeSoft www.capesoft.com

-- Anonymous, May 03, 2001

(Let's try that again, shall we?)

At emailtopia, we have a product called Response Manager that just went beta. It is not web-based -- it uses IMAP, so users continue to use their standard email software-- but does most of what Ev describes. You can find out more at http://www.e mailtopia.com/products/rm_overview.stm. If you are interested, the beta can be downloaded from the main page at http://www.emailtopia.com. Mark

-- Anonymous, May 03, 2001

RT is awesome.

-- Anonymous, May 03, 2001

[Aargh, brackets aren't escaped. Sorry about that.]

RT can be found at http://www.fsck.com/projects/rt/

-- Anonymous, May 03, 2001

Ping's RoundUp is a good example of a product (open-source) that does the kind of thing you're after. (I already pointed Ev at it.)

I believe it's at (yes, just checked). It's a submission to the Software Carpentry project.

But doing it all manually is pretty trivial--our support line (support@emsoftware.com) goes to all of the supporters, and we're careful to always cc: support in response to any response from the customer, so everyone sees what's going on (even if the person in question doesn't use a cc:).

-- Anonymous, May 03, 2001

Sorry, but this reply page features no help (so much on user interface design :) and I would like to see, if it does eat HTML.

-- Anonymous, May 03, 2001

We just have our users access email via imap. That leaves email on the server for all to see and read rather than downloads it. Once an email is actioned it is moved into a sub folder. Jason

-- Anonymous, May 03, 2001

Heck, no preview even. Back to business:

As one answer pointed out, a mail to news gateway could be used to help set up the desired system.

Instead of news, one could use a combination of mailing list manager and web based mailing list archive. And indeed this combination is rather used in many open source projects instead net news.

I don't know why for sure. Perhaps email clients are easier use, or more common than news clients, perhaps admins rather set up a mailing list manager than the distributed news database. In case of the FreeBSD project it might be simply tradition.

The BSD projects share a similiar development model. They are collaborations of a large number of individuals, connected by the net. The development group is organized into core team, who has the last word on certain matters, then the developpers with commit priviledges to the source tree and then those developpers who send patches and bug reports.

The interesting bit is that the source tree consists of the whole system. It includes kernel, userland (/bin, /sbin, /usr/bin etc), all ported applications, documentation, most of the web site and even the bug database.

This source tree is managed by a configuration/revision control system (CVS) and available by a plethora of means (CD-ROM, e-mail, ftp, web interface, anon cvs, fast cvsup servers) for everyone interested.

Like written above, communication is done traditionally by mailing lists. But there are gateways to web interfaces or news groups. All mailing lists are archived and can be accessed by a web interface.

Bug reports, change requests and incoming patches are managed by a GNATS database. You can submit a bug by using the send-pr command, or by a web interface. Please note that you can specify a confidential report, that will not be available for public view. Such PRs (problem reports) get their number assigned by the GNATS system and it is possible to look at them and their status by the web interface. Depending on what categorie, the PRs get send as email as well, either to the maintainer of the system part in question, or sometimes, like in case of problems (or change requests, or even new submissions by non committers) are routed into a mailing list (here freebsd-ports) as well.

This connection of mailing list postings, web interface and special databases (cvs repository, GNATS database) is very powerful.

If a committer submits an update to the source tree, his log message for example goes into the cvs repository of course, is mailed to various interested codeveloppers, is mailed into the cvs-all or ports mailing lists, shows up via the web interface, will propagate to the local copies of the source tree (beamed over via cvsup etc).

If you want to find out how it is all put together - no problem, the whole "glue" (in form of configuration files, scripts etc) is of course checked into cvs.

Other open source projects, like Mozilla.org or XFree86 use similiar setups. Mozilla has another nice feature, where they show the build successes of their various platforms via the web.

Another nice thing are ZWiki/Zope installations, where it is easy to change for everyone to change a common web page (and where vandalism is prevented by transaction/diffs management).

All these collaborative tools put together form very powerful development environments.

-- Anonymous, May 03, 2001

We were doing 3000 support queries a month amongst 4 different people on the one email support@m6.net. Our solution: wrote a small window hosting script that read in all the support emails to a SQL Server database. We then login on the web and answer the messages from there. We then have a ticketed system and as it is all in one interface we can also easily turn a support into a FAQ and as soon as a status changes a client gets an email. We can then track every message ever sent and recieved for each client.

The whole thing is VBScript-WSH, ASP and SQL server. We also scan and score the message recieved for keywords so we can rate urgencies, various technical problems .. we cna get a report at any time that tells us what features are causing us the most problem. It's an invaluable tool that has done amazing things for our efficency.

It was pretty simple to develop .. a few hours for what we call the emailtodb WSH, a few hours to write the web management side.

We're in the process of upgrading it to automate it further and build the FAQ/Knowledge base on the fly.

Michael Guilfoyle http://www.m6.net

-- Anonymous, May 03, 2001

After looking over all the suggestions, and keeping in mind that Joel was aksing if there would be a "need/desire" for such a product. It seems to me that the best solution presented was from emailtopia.

While I personally have no use for it, I am sure that my company could take advantage of an application that does the kind of routing proposed by Ev.

-- Anonymous, May 04, 2001

Like someone said before a simple mail2news gateway will do this. Messages to support@.... are gatewayed to acme.support. You can see new messages, those that got an answer, etc. When you reply to a question, your question gets sent both to the customer (via email) and to the newsgroup.

About 5 years ago, at an ISP I founded, we solved the problem in another way. Mail to support@... would get processed by a procmail script. This script would basically store the email with an ID number and, by analysing its text contents (i.e. grep :) would forward the message to the correct support guy (or to a general guy). It would also add X-... headers so that the support reply, also processed by the same procmail script, could be stored and sent to the customer.

Any of these options coupled with a Web2News or Web2Mail or Web2DB app can do what is needed. Jon Udell at byte.com has been writing about these both in his book "Practical Internet Groupware", in his columns at http://www.byte.com/index/threads and in his most recente article http://www.byte.com/column/BYT20010425S0012 .

C U!

-- Mario Valente

-- Anonymous, May 04, 2001

Kana probably doesn't count as simple or cheap, but it does all this, and is used for email support at a lot of big companies. I've used it, and found it probably TOO powerful, but it's slick. I can't comment on the other stuff Kana does, but running it as a service is an option.

-- Anonymous, May 04, 2001

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