Comcast, You're My Hero
Suddenly the first week of January my ability to send e-mail stopped. At first it was apparently just some of my accounts (I have several e-mail addresses, at least one for each of the publications and domains I produce), then, all of them. According to my Outlook Sent Items folder, the last message I successfully sent out was on the afternoon of Wednesday, 7 January 2009. Thereafter my Outbox began piling up.
I didn’t notice for a couple more days, when responses I’d been expecting to time-sensitive e-mail didn’t arrive.
Late in 2008 I had issues with EXIM and POP, the server software that takes care of sending and receiving e-mail, respectively. Some messages—both inbound and outbound—were apparently lost. After upgrading cPanel/WHM, which included updates to both the EXIM and POP daemons, everything seemed to settle down.
Until early January when no e-mail client on Windows or Mac could reach my SMTP server; neither Windows nor Mac could find the SMTP ports via Telnet, either.
To resolve the problem I tried everything I could think of:
- Checking for cPanel/WHM updates (there were none)
- Recompiling EXIM and POP
- Rebooting the server numerous times
- Disabling all anti-virus and firewall systems on my computers
- Rebuilding Outlook 2007 profiles
- Re-installing and trying Outlook 2003
- Trying out Thunderbird on Windows and Entourage and Mail.app on the Mac
- Changing SMTP ports in Outlook, Entourage, Mail.app, and Thunderbird
My broadband provider, Comcast, swore it didn’t block ports 25, 26, and 587 either for all users or me. Despite that, the hosting provider at whose network ops center my dedicated server resides, swears everything works for them, that it must be my ISP. Of course, that doesn’t take into account the fact that I had the same inability to reach my server’s SMTP ports from WiFi gateways outside the Comcast network. It also didn’t matter that I could reach standard SMTP ports on, and send mail through, other servers (a friend was kind enough to set me up a temporary e-mail account on his server). Still, the hosting company, whom I won’t name because I fear reprisal, threw up its hands and said “not our problem”.
Bear in mind that while all this was going on, the server was suffering other major issues. Another bug in cPanel/WHM caused MySQL to go haywire, frequently crashing the server and instantly maximizing CPU cycles the moment the server came back online. At the same time the bug, which was with InnoDB, generated 122 Gigabytes of error logs in only a few hours. It would fill the harddrives on the server, preventing the server from even accepting inbound e-mail. It took several days to diagnose and nullify that particular bug. Despite all these other things going wrong with the server, the hosting provider still insisted that the SMTP issue couldn’t possibly be on its end.
It was Comcast who rode to my rescue.
Frustrated and now more than a week without the ability to send e-mail, I again called Comcast technical support. At my request, the telephone agent once again verified that neither the network nor my specific Comcast account were flagged to block ports 25, 26, and 587. Then the agent asked me what the full issue was, why I was so concerned about the SMTP ports. I explained that I’d been unable to connect to the SMTP ports on my remote domains, all hosted on the same dedicated server residing near Las Vegas, and that I was at my wit’s end. The agent, who had an impressive level of technical knowledge for a Tier 1 telephone support agent, instantly switched from the basic jargon required to deal with I-forgot-my-password and the-Internet-don’t-work calls into my level of geek speak. We ran through the list of fixes I’d tried before the agent arrived at the same conclusion I had had: something’s up on the server or with the hosting provider’s gateway to the server.
Though I felt vindicated, the validation of the second opinion didn’t fix my inability to send e-mail. So, the agent told me to use Comcast’s SMTP port. He walked me through the quick process of configuring one Outlook mail account to use Comcast’s SMTP servers, and then I sent a test message. Though I’d been afraid the sender would listed as from my @comcast.net address, I was elated to see my test message arrive from my domained address (@iampariah.com) instead. When you’re the publisher of several highly respected, well-known publications and sites it looks really bad to send all your correspondance from an ISP e-mail address instead of one of your own domains. Besides, my domains are constant while ISPs are not; I’ve changed ISPs numerous times since 1991 when I first went online. Comcast’s SMTP server didn’t replace the value of the Sender field as set in Outlook. In the past, ISPs did that; Comcast apparently no longer does.
Within minutes the pile of mail that had accrued undeliverable in my Outbox began to transmit. Hastily I changed the outgoing mail settings on my other accounts (for QuarkVSInDesign.com, Designorati.com, GurusUnleashed.com, and so on) and watched their unsent mail go, too.
Hallelujah! I can send e-mail again. Thank you, Comcast!
If you’ve been expecting mail from me, well, expect it soon. If it never arrives—some mail from the week of the 7th might have been sent by Outlook but lost before reaching the server SMTP port or before relaying out to external mail servers—please let me know so I can resend.