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Messaging headaches may turn into migraines

Virus writers, spammers and even the feds are straining e-mail systems. And if you think things are bad today, tougher times are likely ahead.

CHICAGO -- The taxing job of managing messaging systems isn't going to get any easier.

Matt Cain, senior vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group, said messaging headaches will intensify unless businesses change their approach.

"A lot of organizations are treating e-mail in more of a reactionary mode," said Cain, who kicked off Enterprise Messaging Decisions 2004 on Tuesday. "We need to see a sustained and comprehensive approach to e-mail hygiene."

Few would doubt that e-mail is critical to business operations. Eighty percent of workers now say e-mail is more important than the telephone. That's why Cain said companies should strive to avoid anything more than a few hours of downtime each year.

However, achieving that level of availability is getting tougher, as spammers get more aggressive, virus writers get craftier and the feds get more demanding.

The battlefront

The messaging wars are fought on many fronts.

Nothing robs messaging managers of sleep like spam, according to a Meta study. As much as 70% of today's incoming e-mail is spam; it clogs e-mail systems and steals productivity.

Many spammers have resorted to "phishing," sending fraudulent e-mail designed to get users to turn over personal or corporate information.

"It's a constant battle between the blockers and the senders," Cain said, adding that current laws -- such as the federal CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 -- lacks the teeth to stem the spam tide.

E-mail is also virus writers' favorite doorway to the enterprise. Meta research has found that 80% of viruses enter a company via e-mail, propagating via Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) services on the infected client.

According to Meta, six in 10 businesses dealt with a virus outbreak in the last year.

"Viruses continue to be the single most destructive threat to e-mail," Cain said. "Constant vigilance is required."

Adding to those burdens are regulations requiring companies to archive or encrypt e-mail, the ballooning size of attachments that eat up bandwidth and potential threats from users who access their inboxes wirelessly.

Then imagine keeping up with a steady stream of migrations.

Blaine Williams, who works at aerospace firm Rockwell Collins Inc. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, manages Notes/Domino accounts for a company with 15,000 e-mail users. He said viruses and spam are really just distractions from his biggest problem: seamlessly upgrading his 15,000 users.

"We're trying to make sure our transition is very quick," said Williams, who's in the midst of a move from ND5 to ND6.5.1. Planning the upgrade, as well as readying user FAQs and training manuals, occupies most of his time, he said.

The battle plan

Life isn't going to get any easier for messaging managers, Cain said. He preaches a need for "messaging hygiene," a combination of best practices and aggressiveness.

On the spam front, he recommends quarantining suspected spam and implementing whitelists, which block e-mail from everyone except for known senders. "On a periodic basis...allow users to review what has been quarantined for them" to prevent e-mail for being mistakenly labeled as spam, he said.

Cain cautioned companies not to allow their systems to be overwhelmed by mail floods that can bring down service. He said to make sure the gateway, which routes e-mail traffic from the Internet into the company, blocks mail by domain, IP address and sender, as well as drops connections if systems are hijacked.

Businesses can keep viruses at bay by quickly patching vulnerable systems before the bad guys can exploit them. Cain also recommended stripping out .exe files and other commonly infected file types at the gateway, and formulating an e-mail disconnect policy before a virus outbreak hits.

He urged businesses to get legal teams involved in establishing sound e-mail policies, and to comply with government-mandated archiving requirements. However, he said many executives are under the false impression that storing old e-mails could help them in court when the messages usually do more legal damage than good.

The weapons

Businesses have several choices when it comes to implementing effective messaging technologies, each with its own merits.

Most companies rely on traditional server-side software. While requiring an upfront investment of IT money and skills, these installations typically have the lowest total cost of ownership over a three-year period, Cain said.

Some companies prefer to use appliances, dedicated hardware-software combinations that tackle one or more tasks. They offer a wide range of services, but require bigger investments to roll out to additional users, he said.

Roughly 15% of companies use hosted software to combat viruses or filter for spam. The main advantages are low upfront costs, quick deployment times and little need for internal IT expertise. In fact, companies like Postini Inc. or MessageLabs Ltd. will host virus fighting software for as little as $1 per user per month.

Cain said hosted software used in addition to in-house antivirus tools buys peace of mind.

"We like to see multiple virus-protection engines running," he said.

Jim Getz, manager of product planning at the American Bar Association in Chicago, is exploring hosted e-mail management software. While internal IT concentrates on an upgrade to Outlook 2003, a service provider could oversee the inboxes that his organization gives its 20,000 members.

"We're a pass-through [for our members]," Getz said. "[E-mail] is a service we provide, but it's something that needs to be managed better."

Cain said the workload for messaging managers will likely only increase as enterprise instant messaging usage rises. Currently only about 15% of IT departments sanction IM use, but Meta expects that by 2007, every e-mail user will have an IM account too.

The same problems affecting e-mail -- spam, viruses and regulations -- will probably also hit IM, he said.

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