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Microsoft, third parties cranking out antispam tools

From Microsoft's Intelligent Message Filter to a host of products from smaller vendors, antispam tools are getting smarter.

Want some relief from spam? Vendors say more is coming, but there is still plenty you can do today to alleviate this annoyance.

Experts say the leading edge of spam protection changes every three to four months, as hosted services, messaging filters and gateway appliances continue to improve. Users can benefit from each of these, and the best choice for you will depend both on the size of your enterprise and your budget.

By many accounts, the size of the spam problem will continue to grow. According to the Radicati Group Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif., market research firm, the percentage of total spam messages will grow from 52% of all messages in 2004 to 70% of all messages by 2007. And it's not just annoying. It's costly. Radicati said that spam cost IT about $49 per mailbox in 2003. That figure is expected to leap to $257 per mailbox in 2007. So, for a 10,000-person enterprise, the price comes to nearly $2.6 million to run a messaging system.

If you believe the figures that say 30% to 70% of all mail is spam, think of what that does to your disk space and your network.
Lee Benjamin,

Microsoft is trying to stay ahead of the fight. At the recent World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates predicted that spam would decline within two years, thanks to sophisticated new technologies. Among his ideas: placing computational puzzles in messages that only humans can solve, and requiring senders of unsolicited e-mail to pay a fee unless it is waived by the intended recipient.

In the short term, enterprises running Exchange Server 2003 will have access to Microsoft's Intelligent Message Filter. IMF, which will soon be released to beta and is scheduled for general release this summer, uses the same Smartscreen technology that was recently added to Outlook 2003, MSN and Hotmail.

IMF uses Bayesian analysis to identify spam. It considers the whole message, not just a few key words, to distinguish spam from legitimate mail. The technology is of great interest to some Exchange administrators, both in small offices and enterprise networks.

"If it's the same technology as in Outlook 2003, it should be pretty good," said Ibrahim Abdul-Karim, an Exchange administrator at Delaware Investments in Philadelphia. "I've used it as a standalone application and it was pretty thorough."

If you're not on Exchange 2003, there are plenty of other options for fighting spam. In fact, there are close to 140 vendors that sell some type of antispam technology. One of the most successful methods available is a hosted service that stops the traffic before it gets to the corporate network.

These services change the message exchange (MX) record in a customer domain and filter the message off-site before reshipping the message to the recipient, said Michael Osterman, president and founder of Osterman Research Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in messaging technologies.

There may be a few-seconds delay to the message recipient, but it's not really noticeable, and the service providers update their filters constantly, Osterman said. Some examples of hosted service providers are MessageLabs Inc., Frontbridge Technologies Inc., Postini Corp., Xiologix LLC and Mailwise LLC.

A service may cost more than an on-site appliance, with prices starting at roughly $2 per month per user. Those fees can rise quite a bit, depending on whether the service provider charges for things like support and setup. Some companies charge for every device that receives mail, while others exclude devices such as pagers.

A spam-trapping service was a good option for Barton Malow Co., a Detroit construction company, which has yet to begin its migration from Exchange 5.5 but plans to start later this year. Paul Johnson, chief network engineer, said his company uses Postini to "save precious bandwidth and prevent address harvesting."

Using a service provider can be a good deal because they are expanding their coverage to include virus protection as well as spam. "They have a dedicated staff that just looks for viruses, and they run the messages through multiple virus filters," Osterman said.

IntelliReach Corp., Brightmail Inc., Sunbelt Software Inc. and Borderware Technologies Inc. are examples of companies that make dedicated servers and gateways that stop spam at a customer site. The appliances are generally plug and play, and they are automatically updated by the vendor.

Customers can also buy a shrink-wrapped antispam-antivirus package but, for a large enterprise, some experts say it's best to stop spam before at the perimeter. "If you believe the figures that say 30% to 70% of all mail is spam, think of what that does to your disk space and your network," said Lee Benjamin, an independent messaging consultant and chairman of the Boston Exchange Server User Group.

In the near future, Benjamin said, technologies on the client and server, like IMF, may in fact provide the solution to spam. "Spammers change their approach so fast that the software has to be smart enough to adapt," he said.


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