April 22, 2002

Mailman: Mailing lists for the rest of us

- By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols -

My name is Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols and I ... I run mailing lists. It
started when I was just a brat running mailing lists for my Dungeons and Dragons
games using LISTSERV on
AT&T 3B2 boxes running ITS System V Unix. Soon, I had moved up to
the hard stuff: Majordomo. As years went by, I ran more and more lists using a wider and wider
variety of software even going so far as to run Revnet's GroupMaster
(now DoubleClick's UnityMail) on ... on NT.
I
know, I know, I had sunk as far as a Unix mailing list manager could
go, but then a few years ago, I ran into
Mailman, and I was born again.

Mailman interface

Mailman, for those of you who have never had the pleasure of using it,
is a GNU mailing list manager (MLM) written primarily in Python and
will run on almost every Unix known to man and almost as many mail
servers including, but far from limited, to Sendmail, Postfix and
Qmail. And, it runs really, really well.

How well? There's nothing scientific about my experiences with it,
but what I can tell you is that in the four years I've been running
it for more than a dozen lists with more than 1,000 users, I've
never run into a bug or seen a slow down. Now, that could be
luck, but considering one of the ways I make my living is by taking
software to the breaking point and beyond, I don't think so. It
really is just that good.

You want to talk features? It's got the usual fistful of features
like built-in archiving, a mail-to-Usenet news gatewaying, a spam
filter, automatic bounce detection and repair, and both MIME and RFC-1153 digest delivery.

Want more? Sure you do. Want to keep a public or private archive of
the messages? No sweat. It also gives users great control over how
they get their list mail and how to handle their accounts. Want to drop
off the list for a few days? Change your address? No fuss, no muss,
and, best of all from the list manager's point of view, no work.

Another win from the list administrator's viewpoint is that you can
run multiple lists from multiple virtual domains from one instance of
the program. In my experience running Mailman on BSD and Linux boxes,
I've also found it to have a small RAM footprint, and it doesn't
hog the processor. In short, you can run a lot of lists with a lot of
users with several domains on one minimal machine.

What I really like the most though is the Web user and administration
interface. It's clean, it's easy to use and gives both user and list
manager all the control they could ever want over the list. I've
never seen an easier to use MLM and I include Lyris in that list. Another neat feature is that
each list on the MLM can have its own unique Web page.

Of course, you can use Majordomo email commands to run a lot of
Mailman's basics, but why bother? The simple Mailman interface is
easily the best I've ever seen for a MLM. For that matter, it's one
of the best I've ever seen for any program.

Of course, it's not perfect. Mailman can be a little cranky in
working with Qmail, but the latest version 2.0.10 (April 18, 2002)
takes care of most of that. I've also found that for really big list --
more than 5,000 members -- I have an easier time handling
bulk management on LISTSERV or Majordomo.

Mailman also lacks links to back-end databases and sophisticated
reporting tools. If you want SQL on the back end or real-time message
delivery tracking, you want Lyris, not Mailman.

What it all boils down to is that Mailman's not suitable for
enterprise or spam use. But, for most of us, Mailman is more than
enough MLM for almost any of your mailing list needs, whether it's
keeping your gaming crew together or giving everyone their fair say
on an Open Source project.

Personally, I've used many MLMs, and I choose to run Mailman for both
social and business lists. I'll soon be launching a technology
newsletter, so some of my livelihood is going to depend on an MLM. I
wouldn't think of using anything except Mailman. Need I say more?

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