FTP by Mail

by Charles A. Gimon

Published 1994

Note (November 25, 2003):

This is here for historical interest only. Assume from the outset that any addresses or URLs in this article have long since evaporated, and can no longer be accessed.


A good cook can put together a dish from whatever ingredients they have on hand. A good, comprehensive cookbook should tell you how to make a cake if you don't have any eggs on hand, or you ran out of milk, or someone in your family is allergic to flour. The people who populate the Internet have done the same thing. They've come up with recipes for doing things if you're lacking full access, or don't have the right tools available to you.

Last month, we looked at fun and informative things you can do on the Internet if your only access is by e-mail. This month, as promised, we'll look at how to get software mailed to you from sites all over the world, using nothing more than regular e-mail messages.

Sometimes this process is called "ftp by e-mail". "Ftp" is the unix "file transfer protocol", and you aren't using ftp when you do this. People call this "ftp by mail" because you're getting files from archives that would normally send and receive files by ftp--"ftp archives". If all you have on the Internet is a mailbox, you can't use ftp by yourself to get files out of those archive sites.

However, you can send e-mail to certain sites, and the computer at that site will return a file to you in mail automatically. At other sites, you can send mail to the computer at that site, and that computer will grab a file from a third site of your choosing, and send the file to your mailbox. You can get the same software mailed to you that other Internet users would get by using ftp.

Our example for you to start with is the ftp archive at the University of Vaasa in Vaasa, Finland. (The ftp address there is garbo.uwasa.fi.) This site is a mirror site of the SimTel archive at oak.oakland.edu (Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan), meaning that almost all the files at 'oak' are also at 'garbo'. The archive is packed with more freeware and shareware than you could dink around with in a lifetime, ranging from the amateurish to the very slick and professional. If you have access to Usenet, you can see announcements for new programs at 'oak' and 'garbo' in the newsgroup comp.msdos.archives.announce. There's also a list of "Useful Programs at SimTel and Garbo" that is posted to news.answers on a regular basis.

The system administrators at the Finnish site have set up a mail server on their end. If you send mail to their site, their computer will read your mail and perform any commands that you include in the message. Here's how you can start using their system by mail, step-by-step.

First, you should send mail to their computer exactly like so:

Send the mail to this address: mailserv@garbo.uwasa.fi
In the subject line, put: garbo-request
(All the mail we send there must say garbo-request in the subject line.
Their computer is looking for "garbo-request" mail; otherwise, the mail goes to a human and gets thrown away.)
In the body of the message, put: send help

That's all you have to do for your first message. The computer in Finland will read your mail, and send you mail back with complete instructions on how to use their system (in case this newspaper ends up being used for vegetable peelings).

You would like to know what files they have on hand, of course. You can get a list of files mailed to you the same way:

Send mail to: mailserv@garbo.uwasa.fi
Put in the subject line: garbo-request
Put one of the following in the body of the message:

send pc/filelist/INDEX
send windows/filelist/WINDEX
send unix/UINDEX
send unix/X11/INDEX
send mac/INDEX
send next/INDEX

There is one file list for each directory. The lists show all the files by subdirectory, with one-line descriptions. Now, let's say you want to get the latest version of Skyglobe, a very nice shareware planetarium program for DOS. Under the heading "astronomy", you see:

skyglb36.zip Skyglobe educational map of the sky by Mark Haney

This is the program you want. It's in the list for the pc directory, in the astronomy subdirectory. Here is how you get the program:

Send mail to: mailserv@garbo.uwasa.fi
In the subject line: garbo-request
In the body of the message: send pc/astronomy/skyglb36.zip

Send mail like that, and the Skyglobe software will be winging its way across the Atlantic to you. Notice that you don't use the backslash: this is unix, not DOS. The garbo system asks that you not use a slash in front of the directory ("pc" in this example), either.

Now this may all sound rather simple: send e-mail and get a program. Your work is not done, though. When the garbo computer sends you the program, it doesn't send you the actual file. The original file is a binary file, and binary files can't be sent reliably as e-mail.

What you will get is a whole series of mail messages. Inside the messages will be the file you requested, translated from a binary file into a special text format called uuencoding. These uuencoded files all look the same: big rectangles of gibberish with every line beginning with "M". You will need to convert these uuencoded pieces of text back into the original binary file; as you would expect, this is called uudecoding.

The first step in uudecoding is to get those long blocks of text into files. Most mail programs should let you save a mail message as a file or "folder". Now, you should have several mail messages numbered (in our example) 1/12, 2/12, 3/12, and so on. Save these in files named s1.uue, s2.uue, s3.uue, all the way through s12.uue. Make sure they stay in the same 1-2-3 order.

Next, you will have to put these files in a place where you can use a uudecode program on them. Most likely, you will have to download the "uue" files to your home computer, or copy them to a floppy and take them home that way. If you have a uudecode program on your home computer, put the "uue" files in the same directory, go to that directory, and enter the command:

uudecode s1

The uudecode program will magically reconstitute the original file in a flash. You will want to delete the "uue" files once you've finished, otherwise they clutter up the place.

It's a very smooth process, once you've done it a couple of times. You may have already noticed the catch, though--you need to get that uuencoding/uudecoding program somehow. The help file ("send help") that garbo sends you includes basic source code for a uuencoding program, but that isn't much help for most people. You might be able to find it on a local bulletin board. If you can't find one, send me e-mail at gimonca@skypoint.com, and I'll upload the uudecoding program to a place that you can download it from. It's an essential tool, so you'll want to have it.

Now you have a file skyglb36.zip identical to the one in Finland. The file is compressed as a .zip file, so you will need to use PKZip or a similar program to "unzip" the files contained inside. Virtually every bulletin board on the planet has a copy of PKZip (look for a file pkz204g.exe); again, if you don't have it and can't find it, send me e-mail and I'll point you in the right direction.

Now--finally--you have the Skyglobe software on your home machine, and you can enjoy maps of the night sky. It's a bit of a Rube Goldberg process, but remember, we're working with one hand tied behind our back here. How fast is it? My "garbo-request"s were all answered within about ten minutes. Shuffling the files around, uudecoding and unzipping them took another couple of minutes. The time investment is pretty small, except for the time you'll spend browsing through the list of all their files.

One thing that you should consider before you begin is disk space. If you have e-mail access at work or school, make some discreet inquiries as to how much room you have for e-mail messages on the system. A good program would be to get one piece of software at a time, download it or copy it to a floppy, then delete it from your mailbox. That way, you won't strain the resources between here and Finland, and your system administrator won't be asking you why the contents of a computer at a European university got dumped in his lap that morning.

Once you've used the garbo machine a couple of times, you should be ready to broaden your horizons. Here are addresses for more "ftp-by-mail" servers:


Send mail to any of these sites with "help" in the body of the message for instructions. These servers can do more than just mail you files from their own archives, they can go other sites on the Internet and grab files from just about anywhere, then forward them on to your mailbox. And in the best traditions of the Net, you're letting other people's computers do the work for you.

Now, get out there and start file-shopping!

(Recipes have been tested by staff writer.)


Charles Gimon teaches an Intro to the PC class at the English Learning Center in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at gimonca@skypoint.com.


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