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NIH Record

NIH Group Addresses Email Woes

By Joan Chamberlain

Email at NIH works -- most of the time. But try sending an attachment from your PC to a Mac or Unix user across campus, and you're likely to find the recipient can't read it. Even users on the same platforms (PC to PC or Mac to Mac) can run into attachment problems if they use different word processors or different versions of the same word processor.

"Most problems with attachments arise from word processors, not email technologies," says Alan Graeff, chief of the Clinical Center's information systems department. "The email products used at NIH adhere to well-defined standards that enable interoperability. Word processors, however, use proprietary file formats and don't conform to defined industry standards."

The quickest solution is to paste the text of your document into the body of an email message, though you risk losing formatting in the process. Other options can preserve formatting, such as saving documents in "common" formats (WordPerfect 6.1, Word 6.0, or Rich Text Format), but you may still have compatibility problems, especially if you're sending the document to lots of people. (For more tips on attachments, see "Sharing Doesn't Have to Hurt" in DCRT's LiveWire at (

Email technologies have come a long way since 1973, when DCRT introduced the first elementary system running on a mainframe computer. In the late seventies, NLM began using networked mail connected to Arpanet, the Internet's precursor. With the introduction of local area networks in the mid-eighties, many NIH staff got connected, and by the early nineties, most had discovered the joys of email. Unfortunately, though, as ICDs adopted different technologies, problems arose with exchanging documents.

Currently, about half of NIH's 20,000 email users rely on Microsoft Exchange. The rest use Internet Mail (mostly Eudora on Macs and PCs, Helix, ALW, and Wylbur), Novell's GroupWise, or cc:Mail. In general, these systems "talk" to each other via gateways -- software that "speaks" different email languages. Several years ago, the NIH architectural management group (AMG), with representatives from each ICD, set out to improve information sharing at NIH, create standards for information technology, and reduce the cost of buying and supporting this critical resource. Part of the group's goal was to address the incompatibility problems that arose from the many different combinations of hardware and software that make up the NIH computing landscape.

Last spring, an AMG working group on email recommended several steps to make email more reliable and easier to use:

  • Adopt Internet MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions), a protocol for encoding and transferring email attachments. With MIME, email and even complex attachments such as multimedia arrive intact at their destination.

  • Explore the feasibility of reducing the number of email technologies used at NIH. Meanwhile, each ICD supporting its own email systems should work toward a single email architecture.

  • Explore the feasibility of implementing a single word processing software product at NIH.

  • Create a permanent email management body of the AMG and a separate technical team for rapid problem solution.

Tony Itteilag, NIH deputy director for management and acting chief information officer, endorsed the recommendations and in recently issued guidelines asked the ICDs to adopt MIME (see For the longer term, he supported the adoption of common standards and agreed that a common word processing solution for NIH would ease interchange problems.

"The challenge is to balance the needs of users looking for a seamless system, ease of use, and ease of transmittal on the one hand with users' technical needs and with the costs of implementing new solutions and retraining staff. My goal is to move toward a better solution, but there are technical and cost limitations on doing that immediately," said Itteilag.

Implementing MIME is a critical step but will not correct all the problems of document exchange. "MIME ensures that attachments go through okay, but it won't help people who don't have the software to read them," says DCRT's Roger Fajman, chair of the new NIH Postmasters Club, the AMG technical team on email. NIH uses a number of word processing products, the two most popular being Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect.

"There's no simple, immediate solution to guarantee interoperability between word processors, and the translation challenges escalate as the software gets more sophisticated," according to Graeff, who headed the AMG working group on email.

"Standardizing on a single product may appear ideal, but it doesn't seem achievable given the ICDs' investment in different word processing products. We're considering several different solutions. For example, some institutes are using third-party viewers and translators to help people with attachments. Looking down the road, Web technologies may lead to a common HTML standard that's rich enough to replace proprietary word processing formats," said Graeff.

What can ICDs do right away? "Adopt MIME to ensure accurate interchange of content and have email administrators participate in the AMG email technical and management groups to ensure that trans-ICD problems get addressed," says Perry Plexico, head of the AMG. Meanwhile, NIH email users can sidestep problems by using plain text in the body of email and avoiding attachments when possible. When attachments are necessary, save documents in Word 6.0/95 or WordPerfect 6.1 (the latter is the standard for attachments sent to HHS). For questions about email, call DCRT's help desk at 4-DCRT or send email to

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