Auto responders must die

Okay, maybe not die. But please, use them wisely.

An “auto-responder” is that “Joe Schmoe is out of the office until January 3, 2005. He’ll answer your email when he returns” auto-generated message that you get a lot of this time of year.

Dreamhost email has been, to phrase it nicely…other words come to mind that I can’t say on a family blog…less than reliable lately. Email fails or is delivered very late on an annoyingly-regular basis.

It appears that the two are directly related.

There are two ways of generating an auto-responder. One is on the server level. You tell your mail host to send the auto-response to every email that you receive. If it’s stupid, like Dreamhost’s version, it won’t let you specify any rules. So every piece of spam, every mailing list message that goes to your box will get informed that you’re out of the office…as if the guy telling you how to add inches to your private parts really cares that you’re taking a holiday break, but thanks for telling him that your email is valid nonetheless. He has some friends who’d like to know.

The other way involves leaving your email application running when you’re gone and you have that application send the auto-response based on certain rules after your spam is filtered. Outlook does this nicely. Every decent client does too. The email only goes to those people that you want it to and it won’t get you un-subscribed from all your mailing lists (moderators really hate those auto-replies and some will bounce you for them).

Both methods have their pros and cons, but the former (server-side) method is what has crippled Dreamhost.

I forward my email automatically to a Gmail box. That way when I’m checking remotely I don’t have to deal with the awful SquirrelMail webmail interface. This morning, I was expecting an email and it arrived in the Gmail box, but not in my Outlook or Webmail until hours later.

I wrote to Dreamhost support and asked that they call me back. I’m getting tired of unreliable email. This was the response:

I have left you a message that explains that right now our email delivery within our network in being delayed due to all the auto-responders responding to spam. Thats why Gmail gets the email right away but theres a delay to the emails being sent to our network. This should clear up soon but we have to wait for the emails to finish being delivered because we dont want to delete anyones emails that they are expecting. Right now it better that they get it late instead of never, our Admins are also working on removing the autoresponders from accounts that have ‘catch-all’s’ on them to help this in the future. Let us know if you have any further questions that we can help you with.

The voicemail message left went into much greater detail (2 minutes worth) explaining that they would love to turn the auto-responder off or configure it better, but it’s too late now. For this year at least. He promised it won’t work this way next year. He also said that they are in the process of adding email servers so instead of 400 accounts per server there will be less than that (didn’t say how many) and that will help ease the load.

So bottom line…

  • Dreamhost means well. Still think you get a lot for a little. Email will improve a great deal in 2006, if for no other reason than folks are back at work and not telling spammers their vacation plans.
  • Before you go on vacation and set that auto-responder, think twice about it.

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