Network-hating time

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Technology
March 28th, 2006 • 11:58 am

There are days when even a tech-savvy person such as myself really can’t help but feel intense frustration—if not outright hatred—toward modern technology.

And, for some particular reason, at least in my case, network-related issues seem to be a particularly sensitive area. I am so dependent on my network connection for my work and for most of my computer-related activities that when it is not working right, it quickly becomes extremely frustrating and even downright infuriating.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that there are so few reliable troubleshooting methods or tools. Maybe it has to do with the fact that, by definition, network connections involve much more than one individual, isolated workstation. They involve a nebulous structure of servers and other network devices, most of which are totally beyond the end user’s control.

So, what’s my problem today?

Well, for one thing, the network problems that started a little over a month ago are still there. I am still losing my connection to the Internet on a regular basis (pretty much every 24 hours or so) for no apparent reason. It still fails in a rather mysterious way, with varying symptoms. Sometimes some applications that have a download in progress (such as Speed Download 3) are still able to continue downloading, whereas applications that are in the process of uploading something (such as Mail sending out a message with a large attachment) get brutally interrupted and report that they are unable to send out any mail. Sometimes I see Internet Connect reporting that the modem in the Base Station has become disconnected. Other times it still looks as if it’s connected and I simply don’t get any response from any server.

When this happens, I still have to power-cycle both the Base Station and the Ethernet hub to get things going again, and I usually leave the Ethernet hub (which I only use for the networked printers now) off for a while longer while the Base Station gets back on its feet.

Sometimes, instead of a complete interruption, it actually looks as if the Internet connection has slowed down to a crawl… (compared to the normal dial-up speed, that would be something like 30 seconds to load a simple Google results page), and then after a few minutes it comes back up to normal.

It is all very weird, and very frustrating, because I have absolutely no idea what to do about it.

I still suspect that the problem was introduced by one of the more recent system updates—probably Mac OS X 10.4.4. I guess the ultimate test here would be to do a clean install of Tiger and update it to 10.4.3 and wait for a few days to see if the problem still occurs or if it’s gone. I might still try to do this, although I don’t particularly fancy having to do a clean install yet again.

But why am I writing about all this again today? Because, believe it or not, I now have a new network-related problem to add to the list! All of a sudden, since yesterday morning, I can no longer send out e-mail through my various SMTP servers.

I have SMTP servers for three different domain names. One is on a server just down the road that I manage myself. It’s an Xserve G4 running Mac OS X Server 10.3.9. It works just fine. I use the built-in mail server for sending out e-mail for the accounts that I have on that server. Another one is for my domain. The site is hosted on a server in Australia, and again it has its own SMTP server that I use for sending out e-mail for the accounts that I have with that domain name. And then finally there is the domain. The site is hosted somewhere in France, and again it has its own SMTP server.

I use the same procedure for all three servers, i.e. sending e-mail via SMTP with user/password authentication. It had been working fine for several years. And now all of a sudden it has stopped working. Whenever I try to send e-mail through one of these SMTP servers, Mail seems to be simply unable to connect to the server at all, and ultimately, after a couple of minutes, it comes up with that friendly modal dialog box asking me if I want to use a different SMTP server or edit the message or try again later.

The only SMTP server that I am able to use is the SMTP server of my dial-up provider, Sympatico. (I also tried the SMTP server provided by Apple for my .Mac account. That didn’t work either.)

Why the change? I have no idea. Things were working fine until yesterday morning. Then yesterday morning they didn’t work at all. I used the SMTP server for my dial-up provider for a while, and then yesterday afternoon things were working again, so I thought it was just a temporary glitch.

But then this morning they were no longer working again. So I got on the phone with the tech support for the dial-up provider. Needless to say, trying to explain this problem to the average tech support person is already a challenge. But then try getting them to escalate it! The first person I talked to transferred me to a tech support person in charge of domain hosting, which obviously was not the right person to talk to, since my domains are not hosted by my dial-up provider.

To his credit, that other person was smart enough to understand what the nature of the problem was. But he did say that this problem was not his department and transferred me back to the regular help desk, with instructions to try to escalate things to a “senior technician.” Well, I tried, and I didn’t get very far. I did get to talk to a “supervisor,” but of course his response was that what I was trying to do (i.e. send out e-mail via SMTP servers other than the provider’s server) was not supported. I insisted that I didn’t need any support with this and I was perfectly able to configure this myself. I just needed the thing to work again as it had been doing for the past few years.

But that was obviously too much to ask. No, I am supposed to send all my out-going e-mail through the SMTP server of the provider, and that’s it. You’d think that a provider would actually support people who are trying to use their own SMTP servers, thereby reducing the load on the provider’s SMTP server. But no, apparently, that’s not part of their reasoning. It apparently is too complicated for them to support other SMTP options. Why it had been working fine for me for the past few years, this person couldn’t say. But he also couldn’t say why it had stopped working, and couldn’t transfer me to anyone who might know why.

When I say “nebulous,” that’s what I mean. Whoever is in charge here cannot be reached even by tech supervisors in their own company. I strongly suspect that someone, somewhere, made some changes to Sympatico’s firewall settings which are blocking all SMTP connections other than connections to Sympatico’s own server. It might be for spam-related reasons. Who knows?

All I know is that it’s a royal pain. There are several reasons why I would like to be able to use my own SMTP servers. One is privacy. Message headers contain a record of the full path of your e-mail, and people can see where it’s coming from. I want people to see that my messages are coming from a server, not from a Sympatico server in Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s a matter of principle.

Then there is the lack of portability of region-specific SMTP server settings. If I have to use my provider’s SMTP server, that means that, whenever I am in a different location, I have to use a different setting. Multiply this by my number of e-mail accounts, and it becomes a royal pain.

And then there is the fact that Sympatico’s own servers are not all that reliable. I remember reading not too long ago about an outage that affected all Sympatico users for two or three days. I was not affected, because I only use Sympatico to get connected. But if I have to rely on their mail servers as well, I become more dependent. If their mail server fails, I don’t have any other option.

The whole thing sucks. And of course there is nothing that I can do about it, because what I am trying to do is “not supported.” It’s not supported either for dial-up users or for high-speed users (for those who are fortunate enough to live in an area where Sympatico does offer high-speed). So even with a high-speed connection, even if you have your own domain, you still have to depend on Sympatico’s own SMTP server for sending out e-mails for all your accounts.

And it’s not like I have the option to switch providers! Sympatico pretty much has a monopoly around here. The only real competition is cable, and of course cable is not available in my area either.

On days like today, I really do hate networking technology. It’s great when it works, but when it doesn’t, and you are completely powerless about it, it is immensely frustrating. And when it used to work fine and all of a sudden it stops working for no apparent reason and no one can give you an explanation, it’s downright infuriating!

Now, I suppose I just have to calm down and remember all the great things that I able to do with my computer without a network connection. Right? Right…

(For the record, I don’t suspect that this particular SMTP problem is in any way related to the other problem I have with my Internet connection. For one thing, the SMTP problem started just yesterday, whereas the Internet connection problem has been going on for more than a month. And then the troubleshooting steps that I take to get the Internet connection working again do not eliminate the problem with the SMTP servers.)

6 Responses to “Network-hating time”

  1. Arden says:

    Actually, you should consider yourself lucky to have been able to use your other SMTP servers for so long. Many ISP’s block port 25, which is what you send SMTP mail on, to cut down on the ability for people to send out mass emails (spam). I don’t think I’ve ever been able to use the normal SMTP servers for any of my email addresses since I started using Apple’s Mail.

  2. Julik says:

    The SMTP deal is pretty usual and it’s only for spam protection – it’s done so that when you start sending out mails advertising Viagra your ISP can quickly unplug you :-) actually common practice. To bypass this you need to setup an SSH tunnel to one or more of your remote servers and just send mail through your local machine. It’s a little difficult to get right the first time but otherwise everyone should be happy.

    Your other option is to use different ports on your SMTP servers but I doubt you have that much control over them.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    I still don’t understand the deal with SMTP servers. If Sympatico users are using vulnerable third-party SMTP servers to send out spam, how should that be Sympatico’s problem? It’s obviously the problem of those people maintaining these vulnerable SMTP servers.

    Blocking port 25 altogether seems like a “brute force” approach that mostly affects innocent users just trying to use their own SMTP servers in a perfectly reasonable fashion.

    But I guess there’s not much I can do about it…

    I don’t know anything about “SSH tunnels,” but I guess I can try to learn about them. I see two major problems, though: first, it depends on whether my various hosts will support it, and then there is the question of how realistic it is to try and do it over a slow dial-up connection. In my experience with SFTP (FTP via SSH), there is a significant performance hit, and things are already painfully slow as they are. I don’t want to have to deal with Mail’s lousy ways of handling slow connections on a constant basis. It’s already bad enough as it is.

  4. Julik says:

    Well, anything will hurt on dialup. As to the SMPTP deal – this is a compromise on the ISP’s side. The problem is that when the user is sending out mails via the ISP’s serrver they can be sure that (for instance) all outgoing mail is stamped with the user’s ID, which can be then used for prosecution.

    I think their only fault is not giving you a notice that they are closing the ports. Another option might be to use some SMTP host that supports encryption and works via another port. Gmail uses a different port number just to bypass this kind of block (that many ISP’s impose).

    If you have a G4 server as you say why don’t you setup mail sending via it, but on a different port?

  5. henry says:

    I’m not an expert by any means but what Julik says about port 25 rings true. Also about spam-fighting. I think it is simply necessary for ISPs to change various policies –without notice, of course– in their never-ending fight against spam. Some of their efforts may be ineffectual or misguided, but one must remember most users have very simple needs, and you are not among “most users”.

    That doesn’t add much, but I’ll mention a troubleshooting technique you may not have heard about: You can contact your mail servers via telnet and assure yourself that you can or cannot connect. If you can connect, and if you are willing to endure a rather terse protocol, you can transact actual business with the server, but I don’t recommend it. If you are interested in this let me know by email and I will rummage through my notes and find some details.

  6. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks for the suggestions. I tried listening to the AirPort connection with tcpflow and it turns out that tcpflow cannot hear anything at all when I try to send mail out via other SMTP servers. It can’t even hear attempts to connect to the servers. OTOH, I can see everything working normally when listening with tcpflow while sending messages via the Sympatico SMTP server.

    Wonder what complete silence means. Does it mean that OS X doesn’t even attempt to communicate with the SMTP servers? Or that something is blocked at the source?

    Telnet fails completely too.

    I am going to have to look into the other options. But my experience with these things (SSH tunnels, sending mail via other ports, etc.) is very limited…

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