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Windows holds no monopoly on mail server challenges

Every breed of e-mail server experiences the same inherent challenges when it comes to management, according to three Ipswitch, Inc. executives. Spam, message storing, managing user databases and security were the hot topics discussed recently by the three in light of Ipswitch's June 27 announcement of the latest version of its Web-based messaging server, IMail Server 7.0. IMail runs only on Windows NT/2000 mail servers.

IT managers are all too familiar with the foibles of managing e-mail servers. Spam, message storing, managing user databases and, of course, security were listed recently by three Ipswitch, Inc. executives as everyday headaches with every breed of e-mail server.

Fortunately, IT managers don't have to tackle these problems on their own. Ten-year old, Lexington, MA-based Ipswitch has five year's experience with Windows mail servers and distributes its three main products worldwide in 36 locations. Ipswitch announced the availability of version 7.0 of one of their flagship products, IMail Server, a Web-based messaging server that runs only on Windows NT/2000 mail servers on June 27.

Mail server challenges are universal. "There's not a whole lot of things that are specific to NT when it comes to managing your mail server. They're going to be common problems across all messaging solutions," said John Korsack, Ipswitch Product Marketing Manager.

Specific challenges for Windows mail servers lay in the fact that Windows mail server environments are very easy to configure for security, according to Bob Stull, Ipswitch Product Manager.

They're so easy, in fact, that, "sometimes it is too simple and people can just rush through and mess it up," Stull said. "Because you can set security settings in a few clicks," he said, be careful of what you're doing. "You can also trash your entire security system in a few clicks."

He said administrators often check the wrong box in the interface making their Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) extremely vulnerable, an "open box," according to Stull.

Administrators who run IIS and their mail server on the same machine can be prone to a Unicode attack, according to Ipswitch Vice President of Marketing, Dennis Mulryan. The disk drive contents can then be viewed. Through the disk drives, hackers could then break into the mail system in the message store. "You can't leave any open doors," he said.

The Ipswitch executives are in agreement about one thing: out of all mail server management concerns, spam is the biggest problem. Spam gathering in user inboxes, Korsack said, can easily infiltrate systems that do not have the necessary precautions. He suggested solving the problem by using policies and filters.

Because Web-based mail solutions are popular, Stull said, it is easy for users, intentionally or not, to build 30-50M byte mail files on servers. For example, a company of 500 people with all their mail stored on the primary server is another big challenge for mail server management, he said.

Even Korsack admitted that, prior to an e-mail migration, he had over 100M bytes of his own e-mail stored on Ipswitch's server at one time. "It really does become both a matter of being able to store all the messages, as well as disk access," he said.

Having a way for administrators to manage the size of mailboxes, he said, is also key. Limiting the size mailboxes can be as well as the amount of messages a user can store are two ways to achieve successful e-mail management, Korsack said. For example, IMail addresses these concerns by rejecting messages when users are over their limit and sending an error message.

Mulryan, a former IT manager, chimed in: "One of the things we found is that the stores would fill up and unless you're monitoring your total disk usage, your system will fail."

Another challenge for mail server management is choosing which database of users to use on a server, either an NT database or a proprietary one, or integrating it into other systems, Mulryan said. "It really is just the old database management problem of 'I don't want to have redundant databases all over the place and have to go in and update a user's account in five different places.'"

"Managing, adding, deleting" the user database is one of the biggest challenges, Stull concluded.

Lastly, security for all mail servers remains a hot topic. Protecting mailboxes and keeping people from accessing them can be done by implementing firewalls that will stop DoS attacks and mail floods from reaching the server. In fact, Stull said, "a large enough spam delivered to your system can be a DoS attack all by itself."

Some mail server management best practices cited by Stull, Korsack and Mulryan include:

  • Give users rights to only what they need
  • Limit the amount of space users can have
  • Implement and enforce usage policies
  • Implement anti-relaying products
  • Have a secondary mail server as backup
  • Implement RAID-1 and RAID-5

Remember, Mulryan said, the mail server's not the only aspect to worry about. "The weakest link is your failure point," he said. "You have to think of your router, your switches, the hardware the mail server's running on, Internet connectivity."


Ipswitch, Inc.

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