Print
Category: Digital Health
Hits: 1959

This article was published originally in 2009. It charts the 10-year (and counting) journey of an average NHS mail user - the barriers, challenges, frustrations and general irritation of trying to use something that is not very good. In 2017 I edited it to reverse the chronology - you can read the latest updates first, or scroll to the bottom to find out how it all started.

Update August 2019

My time in the NHS has come to an end, but as the NHS prepares for migration to O365, my colleagues at Strathclyde University have take the lead and migrated to O365 this month. The first I knew was when Davmail stopped working. I had a quick neb at their O365 documentation - they mention Thunderbird and ExQuilla but not Davmail.

Fortunately, the team at Davmail are all over it like a cheap suit. They've updated their guidance on the Davmail site for O365 :

http://davmail.sourceforge.net/faq.html

Clear instructions on changing your EWS endpoint in Davmail to :

https://outlook.office365.com/EWS/Exchange.asmx

Had to change my user name to @strath.ac.uk but other than that, it worked out of the box. Thanks Davmail, I don't need you for NHS mail any more, but great to see that Davmail supports O365 so smoothly.

Update July 2017

The good folks over at NHoS are promoting Evolution EWS as the default mail client for NHS Mail on Linux. This is fine, but I would argue that they are missing a trick. Having experimented at various times with Davmail, I was never able to get it to work with NHS Mail. After reading a few more recent posts suggesting that it was working well, I re-visited it and found that version 4.8.0-2479 (64-bit) worked pretty much out of the box. Use the OWA (Exchange) URL:

https://mail.nhs.net/EWS/Exchange.asmx

and leave everything else at it's default, then set Thunderbird to connect to the account using "localhost" and you're done. I've begun using this within N3 (rather than IMAP) which either is or isn't supported by NHSMail2 - the helpdesk seem unsure. I've also tried this on Ubuntu with equally good results.

There's a good post on it here :

https://forums.linuxmint.com/viewtopic.php?f=42&t=187501?f=42&t=187501

Update July 2016

Two years of relative productivity with Evolution on Linux VM came grinding to a halt with the release of NHS Mail 2. Evolution no longer connects on the old EWS address of :

https://outlook.nhs.net/EWS/exchange.asmx

Had a long trawl of the LOA documentation, couldn't see any hints as to what the new address might be. Solutions tried - Windows Mail on Windows 10. The autodiscover tool defaults it to https://eas.nhs.net. This will only download a maximum of 1 month's email as it uses the service designed for mobile devices.

Incidentally, my Nitrodesk/Symantec Touchdown HD app on Android survived the NHSMail2 migration largely unscathed.

Next solution tried was the excellent eM Mail Client http://www.emclient.com

This has a free license model for personal use and it's autodiscover tool, when fed a *@nhs.net address will take you to :

https://mail.nhs.net/EWS/Exchange.asmx

So in the end, just a change of subdomain from outlook. to mail. Who knew it was that simple ? Happy to report that Evolution EWS connects on the URL above.

The new Outlook web app is also a big improvement on the last, but has a few critical failings. Verdict : eM on Windows or Evolution on Linux are my two top options. eM is simpler if you're on Windows and can't be bothered setting up a VM. It's a young product but hopefully it'll remain free for personal use. Evolution is not the most stable of mail clients but is free and has served me well and looks like it will continue to do so.

Update May 2014

ExQuilla, whilst being a great add-on that works out of the box, is not free. Seems a shame that Mozilla haven't taken up the challenge and integrated support for Exchange Web Services into Thunderbird but there you go. Being Scottish and therefore less willing to put my hand in my pocket and pay for something that I believe (in principle) should be free, I had another go at getting the Linux mail client Evolution to work. I've been able to get Evolution to work fine on CentoOS 6.5 from outside N3, on a Linux PC but my challenge is to get it to run in a VM on my NHS Windows XP laptop. Happy to say I seem to have cracked it now. Using VMWare Player :

https://my.vmware.com/web/vmware/free#desktop_end_user_computing/vmware_player/6_0

I set up a CentoOS 6.4 VM and set the network adapter to use the virtual ethernet connection created by the player. Once CentOS was updated and happy with the connection, I installed Evolution and created an EWS account for NHS mail, specifying the URL as :

https://outlook.nhs.net/EWS/exchange.asmx

After giving it my NHS mail password, Evolution downloaded my mail folders and let me send and receive mail and connect to the directory services too - result.

The ultimate irony ?

Works fine outside N3 but not within N3. Not entirely sure why but who cares ? After 5 years+ I've found a free solution to proper "thick client" productivity outside N3.

Update February 2014

Some 5 years down the line, I've come across a brilliant Add-On for Thunderbird called ExQuilla

https://exquilla.zendesk.com/home

This has finally allowed me to connect to NHS Mail from outside N3 with a very minimum of fuss. Download the add-on, install in TB, enter NHS mail username and password and select "autodiscover". I can hardly believe it. It has a free 60 day trial but not sure what the license cost is after that.

This, coupled with the availability of Nitrodesk's Touchdown HD for Android (get it from the Goodle Play Store), you might almost be forgiven for believing that the NHS Mail team had embraced the Open Platform ethos. Sadly, I think it's just the case that Mozilla et al have accepted that a lot of  poor sods like me are forced to use Exchange by our employers and kind souls that they are, have taken pity on us and built free or near-free tools so that we can get on with our work.

Hats off to you ExQuilla, you've done a great thing.

 

4-Feb 2009

An update on my determined attempts to resume NHS mail productivity from outside the NHS (N3) network:

  1. Please have a look at the 84-page NHS mail configuration guide. First up, it's a PDF, not a Word doc. Great! The NHS mail team are embracing open standards at last. Oh dear, the page index is totally screwed and contains text links such as "Go to Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. and log into the NHSmail service" (p7, v1.4) [Update - this was fixed some months later]
  2. The section "Connecting over the Internet using IMAP or POP" which can be found on page 84 (don't you love how the interesting stuff is always on the last page of a guide and the index is obfuscated in an effort to hide it) says :
    If you need to access NHSmail over the Internet using IMAP or POP, you must first install a specific security application on your computer. This application enables you to create a secure tunnel through the Internet, allowing your email programme to connect to NHSmail. Once the application is installed you can use it open the secure tunnel and log in to NHSmail using your email programme.
    Note: It is not possible to connect to NHSmail over the Internet using Entourage.
    Since when was Entourage the most popular non-Outlook email client ?Oh wait, MS have some sort of stake in it, that makes sense now.
  3. Regarding the "Outlook Anywhere" set up file - although it says in the PDF guide that this is only compatible with Outlook 2003 and later, if you launch it when you have Outlook 2002 or earlier, it dies. No error message, it just dies.
  4. Outlook Anywhere setup - this creates a new profile for you, allowing you to connect to the Exchange server with all the correct details...except that it requires you to re-input your password three times in a row. First time through, I thought this was broken until I read "Repeat the process each time you are prompted". Outlook crashed three or four times and started up in safe mode a couple of times before stability resumed and I was able to see my mail folders.
  5. Let's say for sake of argument that you got Outlook 2003 to work using POP/IMAP and you are on NHS Net. Now you want to send an email. The outgoing server is send.nhs.net (what was wrong with the industry-standard smtp.nhs.net, more obfuscation?) and the instructions tell you to set TLS rather than SSL (or nothing). Imagine my surprise when I discover that TLS is not one of the available options in Outlook 2003.

All fuel for the fire at the inimitable Dr Rant

 

January 2009

The big NHS Mail migration to Microsoft Exchange is over, at least for me, and now I'm dealing with the fallout. I consider myself to be a fairly typical Internet user. Not especially MS-philic nor MS-phobic. Happy to use Windows at work and at home, although not a fan of MS Office and especially not of MS Outlook.

A dabbler in Linux and a fan of Mozilla, especially of Thunderbird which I'm lucky enough to have on my NHS PC (shhh....don't tell my IT department).

In the lead-up to the migration I emailed the NHS mail team a couple of times asking for reassurance that my Mozilla set-up would be compatible with the all-singing and dancing new MS Exchange platform. Reassurance was duly given and to their credit, Thunderbird seems happy enough when the client PC/Notebook is connected to the NHS (N3) network, and selecting IMAP/SMTP.

When I get home, things take a turn for the worse. "Unable to connect to imap.nhs.net". Why not ? I'm using SSL on port 993 like it says in the helpful guide to setting up Outlook. But wait, there's something here about Entourage. Oh dear, seems that if you're not using Outlook then your options have dwindled to....well, let's just say, you're screwed.

That's not entirely true, you can fire up MSIE, point it to https://web.nhs.net, tip-toe around the mouse-cliick anti-key-logging screen and Bingo ! You get a nice busy OWA interface, with all the network latency that it brings.

Oh, and I forgot to mention...it times-out after about fifteen minutes of inactivity. Not quite long enough for you to complete that lengthy email, so when you hit "send", you're rewarded with "Page Cannot be Displayed".

I also forgot to mention the "secret" secure tunnel application. Except that this involves :

Could never get it work but that's another story.

Perhaps I'm way out of line here, but am I the only person who thinks that not being able to access NHS mail with my preferred third-party mail client, from home, over a simple encrypted SSL IMAP connection on port 993 is a bit of a pain ?

And what's worse, it seems that the "mobile" users are getting a better deal - my colleague alleges that he has set up NHS mail on his iPhone and it's working like a charm. Surely that can't be any more secure than my encrypted IMAP connection ?. Oops, I left my iPhone on the train again.

The outcome for me is that I no longer look at NHS mail when I'm not in the hospital or the NHS office. One can only guess at what the cumulative effect of this might be at a national level.

Shortly after the migration, an email appeared in my Inbox from the NHS mail team that had the word "feedback" in the title. Keen to report on my initial experience, I clicked it but to my dismay, it was the NHS mail team giving me their feedback. I had hoped it might be the other way round, especially as there is so much I would like to share with them.

Comment on this article at www.scata.org.uk