SUMMARY: biff(1) doesn't bark if mail delivered to server

From: Jim Hickstein (
Date: Mon May 20 1991 - 14:34:48 CDT

I got lots of replies to this one, most saying the same things. I will
truly summarize rather than just concatenating all the replies.

biff(1) doesn't bark (that is, notify a user that mail has arrived)
when that user is logged into some machine other than the host where
the mail is actually delivered. In my case, mail is delivered to a
fileserver for a groups of hosts; nobody logs into the server (at
least, that's the way I want it). I asked why this is so, and what I
could do about it.

Normally, /bin/mail talks to in.comsat, which consults /etc/utmp to
find out on which terminal the user is logged in, if any. Since that
user is not logged into that host, it does nothing.

Several solutions were mentioned:

1) Just use mailtool and be content (this is what I do, personally).
Use a small value for "interval" so it has a short latency.

2) Leave a window logged into the server, so biff will bark and you
will see it. (Ugly, all agreed.)

3) Rely on csh: "set mail=(20 /var/spool/mail/$USER)". This will tell
you (but not loudly) that you have new mail before the next prompt is

4) Modify comsat to broadcast to a set of hosts. (See below.)

5) Write a custom daemon. (See below.)

Several people pointed out how easy it would be to modify comsat (or
binmail, but that was discouraged even more strenuously). It would
even be legal, since the BSD sources are apparently widely available.
One fellow (Gordon Galligher) suggested using a perl script in lieu of
comsat itself. Another (Joe Habermann) told me about
in.comsat_broadcast, by Douglas Moran of SRI, available from
titan.Rice.EDU, and he even sent me the source in case I couldn't get
it myself (thank you). That one gets the "silver platter" award! :-)
However, broadcasting in this way was said to work well only for fairly
small networks.

John Jorgensen had hacked up his own versions of rwhod, ruptime, rwho,
rwhocomsatd, etc., to find out where the user *is* logged in, rather
than broadcasting. David Carter wrote his own program that emits just
the sender and subject line to the console window, which seems even
nicer than biff, for Sunview users. I like this idea best.

Several people (including Hal Stern) mentioned xbiff, available on
UUNET, but didn't explain why it would solve the problem. Given that
"x", I suspect I can't use it under Sunview.

Two warnings:

1) the "OR" option (Remote) in seems to have been buggy at
some time in the past, i.e. pre-4.1; several people warned me off of
it. Actually, since I am resigned to running sendmail daemons on my
clients, I can just force them to write their outgoing addresses as the
domain, eliminating the need for OR (I think).

2) if you don't run sendmail daemons on the clients, users who try to
do "Mail -sTitle user@domain <file" will come to grief. I'm not sure
just why, but I'll take his word for it (Costas). Evidently
/usr/ucb/Mail has to connect to the sendmail daemon on localhost for

Many, many thanks to these generous people (in chronological order):

From: David Carter <>
From: Martin Earl <>
From: Robert L Krawitz <rlk@Think.COM>
From: Tony.Santos@Canada.Sun.COM (Tony Santos - Sys/Net Administrator Sun Toronto)
From: (Mike Pearlman)
From: jnapier@UCSD.EDU (Jim Napier)
From: stern@sunne.East.Sun.COM (Hal Stern - Consultant)
From: "Brian R. Smith" <>
From: (barking at airplanes)
From: Gordon -v Galligher <oconnor!>
From: (Matt Goheen)
From: Costas Kardasopoulos <>
From: "Joe Habermann" <>
From: Neil Rickert <>
From: (John Jorgensen)

"Neither can His Mind be thought to be in Tune whose Words do Jarre;
 Nor His Reason in Frame whose Sentence is Preposterous."
Jim Hickstein, Teradyne/Attain, San Jose CA, (408) 434-0822 FAX -0252 ...!{decwrl!teda,apple}!attain!jxh

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