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Email is store and forward

Many of us are so used to email appearing instantaneous, we forget that the underlying protocol was never designed for instant messaging. When the SMTP protocol was originally proposed it was designed to support servers that may have had intermittent connectivity. The protocol allowed for email to be spooled to disk and then sent when resources were available. In fact, almost everyone who was around more than 10 years ago knows of a case where an email took weeks, months or even years to deliver.
These days we’re spoiled. We expect the email we send to friends and relatives to show up in their mailbox within moments of sending it. We expect that sales receipt or e-ticket to show up in our mailbox within instants of a purchase. We expect that our ISPs will get us email immediately, if not sooner.
But there are a lot of things that can slow down email delivery. At several points in the process an email may be spooled to disk. It stays on the spool until the next part of the delivery process can happen. Other points of slowdown include the various anti-spam, anti-virus and anti-phishing protections that ISPs must implement. Then add in the extreme volume of email (around 10 billion messages a day) and all of a sudden email delivery is slower than many senders and recipients expect it to be. This delay is not ideal, but the system is designed so that mail is not silently discarded.
While individual emails may be delayed, most users will rarely see that delay in the email that they send. Bulk senders, who may be sending thousands or hundreds of thousands of emails a day, may see more delays in a single send than the average user sees in years of sending one-to-one email.
Email is store and forward, not instant. Sometimes that means there is a delay in getting email into the recipients inbox. And, sometimes there isn’t anything anyone can do to speed up delivery, except to adjust expectations of how email works.

1 comment

  1. adamo says

    “most users will rarely see that delay in the email that they send”
    And that is why for years I am trying to explain to our users that email is not instant messaging with limited success.
    So, no matter whose fault the delay is, for them it is always the fault of their postmaster 🙁

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