by Mark H. Anbinder, News Editor -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Director of Technical Services, Baka Industries Inc.
Better late than never, say owners of Soft-Arc's FirstClass messaging software. SoftArc shipped the long-awaited FirstClass 2.5 at the end of March, making it available to existing customers immediately on SoftArc Online, their own FirstClass server. Customizable message forms, enhanced email functions, and database access are among the highlights of the new release.
FirstClass is popular as BBS software for companies providing technical support, as a corporate email and conferencing system, and even as the base software for professional-looking local bulletin boards. FirstClass supports email and other basic messaging features at its core, along with threaded discussion capabilities, file transfer, database access, and online chatting.
Although SoftArc originally intended to ship the release in late 1993, they delayed the release in order to respond to beta testers' reports and suggestions. Nick Chinn of Global Village Communication, which uses FirstClass to provide support, information, and software updates to customers, says he's "always happy when a developer admits there are bugs in the software and is not willing to release the product until it is ready. Extended beta testing periods also let a developer add overlooked features based on feedback from customers."
In addition to sharing administrator functions on Global Village's support BBS, Nick is the admin or co-admin on two other systems, including a public BBS operated out of his home. One important improvement 2.5 provides is the ability for multiple connection schedules and automatic retries of failed connections for server-to-server gateway links. This is important to Global Village "because we like to get our support conference questions answered quickly and then transmitted out immediately."
FirstClass 2.5's directory synchronization capability stands out as one of its sexiest features. Large organizations can use multiple FirstClass servers spread over several local-area networks, linked by routers, WAN connections, or even on-demand modem links, and keep a consistent user directory on each server. Mail sent to a user is automatically earmarked for the correct server and properly routed, whether over a traditional network connection, dialup connection, or other link. SoftArc says that even with as many as 100,000 defined users, the FirstClass server quickly completes directory searches and name matches.
For larger networks, such as the international OneNet network that has sprung up based on the FirstClass architecture, servers can exchange only routing information rather than entire directories. Each server sends its neighbors the list of other servers it knows about and can reach. This means that users must provide the user name and site name for an intended recipient, but FirstClass automatically determines how to best route the message to its recipient. The FirstClass name-matching feature works even at a distance; users need only provide enough of an intended recipient's name to match it uniquely at the destination site. If there isn't a unique match, the destination site returns a list of "hits" so the sender can try again.
Other email functions SoftArc introduced include: automatic message forwarding (even over an Internet or fax gateway), auto-replying, and message receipts (which can indicate when the message was routed, delivered, or read). SoftArc is also shipping its forms editor, allowing administrators to create customized message forms or edit existing ones. This meshes well with the "stationery" capability, permitting administrators to set up pre-addressed forms that users can fill out and send with a minimum of effort.
FirstClass 2.5 also offers impressive new database access features. Third parties are already providing database query extensions to permit FirstClass users to access SQL and DAL databases. EveryWare Development Corporation offers 411 for FirstClass, which can access the company's multi-user Butler SQL database server, and TGF Technologies has shipped FirstConnect to access DAL-compliant database servers. The FirstClass database API is sufficiently flexible that it's likely to spawn a suite of Internet information access products in the future.
Usenet readers should be particularly interested in the improved non-delivery notification handling with gateways. As more and more FirstClass systems connect to the Internet with a gateway, incorrect configuration has on numerous occasions led to "NDN" messages sent to unsuspecting, and understandably frustrated, Internet users. By default, FirstClass 2.5 suppresses conference error messages when a gateway is involved; bounce messages will of course still be sent when messages to individual addresses are undeliverable.
SoftArc says the new version incorporates speed increases for modem connections and wide-area networks, and in particular for file uploads. At the same time, the server and client software encrypts all packets regardless of the communications medium, so all messages, files, and login transactions are exchanged in a secure manner.
One area still lacking in FirstClass is its command-line user interface, or CLUI. Although this feature (an option on corporate mail configurations) enables anyone with a VT-100 terminal or emulator to access a FirstClass server, it lacks the elegance of the Macintosh and Windows graphical interface software. Many first-time users "find it difficult to navigate," according to Nick Chinn, who would like "some degree of ability to custom configure the CLUI interface."
An immediate project for SoftArc now that FirstClass 2.5 has shipped will be to take the DOS client software off the back burner and do some serious work. A DOS client will give an alternative to the vast majority of users now restricted to the CLUI. SoftArc also plans to build TCP/IP support directly into the server and client software; currently, TCP/IP connections can be arranged only through the software's built-in support for the Communications Toolbox, using third-party MacTCP-compatible connection tools.
The FirstClass Client software is available for Macintosh and Windows users, and you may download it from America Online, CompuServe, or SoftArc Online (416/609-2250). It will no doubt appear on the Internet soon. Registered owners may download the new server software directly from SoftArc Online or may order a $95 upgrade package that includes a complete set of disks and documentation. (SoftArc completely rewrote their comprehensive manuals for this release.) At this time - because the documentation is being printed - SoftArc is shipping FirstClass server 2.4.1 and client 2.0.9 to new purchasers. If you buy the older versions, you will receive the 2.5 software and documentation for free.
SoftArc Inc. -- 416-299-4723 -- 416- 754-1856 (fax)
EveryWare Development -- 905-819-1173 -- 905-819-1172 (fax)
TGF Technologies -- 802-660-4911 -- 802-862-1890 (fax)