Taking out the garbage of spam

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The rise of email as a mission-critical commercial tool has led to one unfortunate side affect. A daily stream of garbage finds its way into our inboxes. Dealing with spam is the curse of modern business. Some spam even turns your own IT systems into spam transmitters so it is just as important to ensure your systems are not sending garbage out.

According to the findings of a survey of 1,000 companies published by the the the U.K. government's Dept. of Trade and Industry in the second quarter of 2004 approximately half of the companies surveyed say spam is a noticeable or significant proportion of their incoming email. And the trend is expected to rise. One prominent research firm in this field, Radicati Group, claims that spam in Europe is set to grow at around 54 percent per year over the next four years. By 2008, despite all attempts at legislative control, the study projects that spam will constitute 71 percent of all email received in Europe.

While opinion remains divided on the impact of spam there is general agreement that unless action is taken, spam may soon prevent email from being effective. So much business today relies on email for communications and transactions that having to return to more traditional methods would have a crippling effect. Most spam to hit U.K. mailboxes originates from outside the country. With government legislation seemingly unable to find an adequate solution it is increasingly being left up to companies to find ways to reclaim their email servers and keep their businesses running smoothly.

Most of the leading anti-spam solutions on the market offer a multi-layered approach to email filtering. These range from the simple - such as keyword filters and databases of blacklisted IP addresses - to the more complex - such as rules-based scoring, Bayesian analysis and other methods based on mathematical algorithms. Most anti-spam solutions do a reasonable job at keeping spam out. The real question is two-fold: First, does the customer want a solution that can be managed in-house or do they want to use a third-party or outsource service for spam filtering? And second, how much are they willing to pay to eradicate the nuisance of spam?

Some of the best-known names in anti-spam offer an outsource approach. Yet, the majority of businesses prefer to have total control over their email if they can. Corporate email is usually subject to constant changes and requires regular attention. Adjustments need to be made daily to accommodate matters such as new employees, temporary staff and special requirements for executives. Having an outsource provider in the middle just adds to the task especially when their overall costs are taken into account.

Such costs escalate even further if the email filtering company is also scanning your outgoing mail. Depending on your line of business, legal constraints and legislative pressures are building on companies to ensure that all outgoing email is legitimate and virus free. This requires additional filtering for outbound email so that suspect attachments, banned keywords and company confidential material can be blocked or quarantined for investigation before they are allowed out.

Two options are available for companies wishing to fight spam themselves - an appliance-based or a software approach. Anti-spam software is generally available either as a standalone offering or as part of a broader email filtering suite. On the plus side, it is comparatively inexpensive to acquire. On the downside, however, such applications tend to have hidden extra costs. For example, there has to be an investment in staff training and administration time to ensure that upgrades and patches are kept up to date. Some organisations opt for a dedicated server in front of their email servers.

By contrast, appliances keep installation time to a minimum and eliminate administration time associated with managing software solutions. Moreover, appliances are generally built on hardened operating systems to make them less susceptible to hackers and viruses.

For many businesses, cost and efficiency are the primary concerns when choosing an anti-spam solution. For these customers, a hardware solution makes the most sense.

Spam is constantly evolving. What catches 99 percent of spam today may not do so tomorrow. To minimize the amount of spam that enters an organization, any anti-spam solution must integrate the most effective techniques yet keep administration and maintenance to a minimum. By picking a system with a multi-layered filter approach as well as one that adapts readily to new spam and virus trends, customers can turn back the tide on spam and increase their chances of purchasing a future-proof system.

The author is EMEA vice president & managing director, Barracuda Networks

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