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    The case of the 500-mile email

    The case of the 500-mile email

    The following is the 500-mile email story in the form it originally appeared, in a post to sage-members on Sun, 24 Nov 2002.:

    From trey@sage.org Fri Nov 29 18:00:49 2002
    Date: Sun, 24 Nov 2002 21:03:02 -0500 (EST)
    From: Trey Harris <trey@sage.org>
    To: sage-members@sage.org
    Subject: The case of the 500-mile email (was RE: [SAGE] Favorite impossible

    Here's a problem that *sounded* impossible... I almost regret posting the
    story to a wide audience, because it makes a great tale over drinks at a
    conference. :-) The story is slightly altered in order to protect the
    guilty, elide over irrelevant and boring details, and generally make the
    whole thing more entertaining.

    I was working in a job running the campus email system some years ago when
    I got a call from the chairman of the statistics department.

    "We're having a problem sending email out of the department."

    "What's the problem?" I asked.

    "We can't send mail more than 500 miles," the chairman explained.

    I choked on my latte. "Come again?"

    "We can't send mail farther than 500 miles from here," he repeated. "A
    little bit more, actually. Call it 520 miles. But no farther."

    "Um... Email really doesn't work that way, generally," I said, trying to
    keep panic out of my voice. One doesn't display panic when speaking to a
    department chairman, even of a relatively impoverished department like
    statistics. "What makes you think you can't send mail more than 500

    "It's not what I *think*," the chairman replied testily. "You see, when
    we first noticed this happening, a few days ago--"

    "You waited a few DAYS?" I interrupted, a tremor tinging my voice. "And
    you couldn't send email this whole time?"

    "We could send email. Just not more than--"

    "--500 miles, yes," I finished for him, "I got that. But why didn't you
    call earlier?"

    "Well, we hadn't collected enough data to be sure of what was going on
    until just now." Right. This is the chairman of *statistics*. "Anyway, I
    asked one of the geostatisticians to look into it--"


    "--yes, and she's produced a map showing the radius within which we can
    send email to be slightly more than 500 miles. There are a number of
    destinations within that radius that we can't reach, either, or reach
    sporadically, but we can never email farther than this radius."

    "I see," I said, and put my head in my hands. "When did this start? A
    few days ago, you said, but did anything change in your systems at that

    "Well, the consultant came in and patched our server and rebooted it.
    But I called him, and he said he didn't touch the mail system."

    "Okay, let me take a look, and I'll call you back," I said, scarcely
    believing that I was playing along. It wasn't April Fool's Day. I tried
    to remember if someone owed me a practical joke.

    I logged into their department's server, and sent a few test mails. This
    was in the Research Triangle of North Carolina, and a test mail to my own
    account was delivered without a hitch. Ditto for one sent to Richmond,
    and Atlanta, and Washington. Another to Princeton (400 miles) worked.

    But then I tried to send an email to Memphis (600 miles). It failed.
    Boston, failed. Detroit, failed. I got out my address book and started
    trying to narrow this down. New York (420 miles) worked, but Providence
    (580 miles) failed.

    I was beginning to wonder if I had lost my sanity. I tried emailing a
    friend who lived in North Carolina, but whose ISP was in Seattle.
    Thankfully, it failed. If the problem had had to do with the geography of
    the human recipient and not his mail server, I think I would have broken
    down in tears.

    Having established that--unbelievably--the problem as reported was true,
    and repeatable, I took a look at the sendmail.cf file. It looked fairly
    normal. In fact, it looked familiar.

    I diffed it against the sendmail.cf in my home directory. It hadn't been
    altered--it was a sendmail.cf I had written. And I was fairly certain I
    hadn't enabled the "FAIL_MAIL_OVER_500_MILES" option. At a loss, I
    telnetted into the SMTP port. The server happily responded with a SunOS
    sendmail banner.

    Wait a minute... a SunOS sendmail banner? At the time, Sun was still
    shipping Sendmail 5 with its operating system, even though Sendmail 8 was
    fairly mature. Being a good system administrator, I had standardized on
    Sendmail 8. And also being a good system administrator, I had written a
    sendmail.cf that used the nice long self-documenting option and variable
    names available in Sendmail 8 rather than the cryptic punctuation-mark
    codes that had been used in Sendmail 5.

    The pieces fell into place, all at once, and I again choked on the dregs
    of my now-cold latte. When the consultant had "patched the server," he
    had apparently upgraded the version of SunOS, and in so doing
    *downgraded* Sendmail. The upgrade helpfully left the sendmail.cf
    alone, even though it was now the wrong version.

    It so happens that Sendmail 5--at least, the version that Sun shipped,
    which had some tweaks--could deal with the Sendmail 8 sendmail.cf, as most
    of the rules had at that point remained unaltered. But the new long
    configuration options--those it saw as junk, and skipped. And the
    sendmail binary had no defaults compiled in for most of these, so, finding
    no suitable settings in the sendmail.cf file, they were set to zero.

    One of the settings that was set to zero was the timeout to connect to the
    remote SMTP server. Some experimentation established that on this
    particular machine with its typical load, a zero timeout would abort a
    connect call in slightly over three milliseconds.

    An odd feature of our campus network at the time was that it was 100%
    switched. An outgoing packet wouldn't incur a router delay until hitting
    the POP and reaching a router on the far side. So time to connect to a
    lightly-loaded remote host on a nearby network would actually largely be
    governed by the speed of light distance to the destination rather than by
    incidental router delays.

    Feeling slightly giddy, I typed into my shell:

    $ units
    1311 units, 63 prefixes

    You have: 3 millilightseconds
    You want: miles
    * 558.84719
    / 0.0017893979

    "500 miles, or a little bit more."

    Trey Harris
    I'm looking for work. If you need a SAGE Level IV with 10 years Perl,
    tool development, training, and architecture experience, please email me
    at trey@sage.org. I'm willing to relocate for the right opportunity.

    The case of the 500-mile email

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    painejake's Avatar
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    Good laugh for a friday afternoon lol :-)

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