Spam Battle’s Shifting Sands

Microsoft is taking spam fighting technology seriously. Enterprise players’ reaction? There’s plenty of spam to go around.

This week, Brightmail released an upgrade to its enterprise spam filtering software. Brightmail Anti-Spam Version 5.5 contains new URL rules to catch those nasty tricksters who send spam containing deceptive URLs, along with a second-generation Open Proxy List, the company’s real-time blacklist. The upgrade includes administrative controls for corporate administrators who prefer hands on to the product’s “set and forget” premise. ”

With multiple offices in Europe, Asia and the U.S., and its product filtering almost 15 percent of worldwide e-mail traffic, “We see more spam than almost anybody,” said Brightmail enterprise product manager Mark Bruno. As spam flows in, a combination of software and live humans at the company rewrite the filters to match new ploys, then send the updates to Brightmail servers at corporate clients’ mail gateways. “Spam is so dynamic,” Bruno said, “you have to constantly update it.”

Today, IronPort gets into the product updating game, releasing IronPort C30, a smaller and less expensive version of its C60 hardware and services offering, designed for small to medium enterprises.

Spam-fighting is a booming market. “Everyone seems to have a spam project today,” said Peter Schlampp, director of product management for IronPort. IronPort expects that almost 85 percent of e-mail gateways will have been replaced between the beginning of 2003 and the end of 2004.

For e-mail marketers, the booming business means they’re having to cope with a variety of different players and technologies, as they work to get their legitimate messages through any filtering system between them and their subscribers. Still, many spam filters may be better than no filters at all, given that getting messages read in a cluttered mailbox is especially difficult — and the clutter just continues to increase.

So it’s no surprise that Microsoft is getting into the game. On November 16, Chairman Bill Gates unveiled Microsoft’s new spam-filtering technology, called SmartScreen. The technology is implemented in Outlook 2003, MSN and Hotmail, and it will power Microsoft Exchange Intelligent Message Filter (IMF), an add-on for Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, next year.

Microsoft’s entry into any new product area tends to produce fear and loathing among software vendors. But spam fighters say they’re not worried that IMF will take a bite out of their market.

First of all, they say, one spam filter isn’t enough. “No technology can do the job properly by itself,” said Michael Gaudette, product manager for secure messaging and infrastructure provider Vircom. He said that it was unclear whether IMF would have a dynamically changing engine that could react quickly to the rise of new spam forms. Even if it does, he said, “It will still be advantageous to have a third-party solution in front of it. I believe that even the Exchange people say it won’t be enough [by itself].” In fact, according to Brightmail, Microsoft uses its services as one of several layers of filtering for MSN, Hotmail and corporate e-mail.

Besides, vendors say, relying on spam filtering at the mail server is too little too late. Brightmail’s Bruno pointed out that Microsoft will embed IMF into Exchange Server, but lots of customers don’t use Exchange at the gateway. Instead, they use a gateway server, then an Exchange server for mail.

Filtering at the mail server is also more expensive. Said IronPort’s Schlampp, “Every time a message hits your Exchange server, that’s more that resource will cost you.”

Finally, the spaminators doubt Microsoft will be able to keep up with shape-shifting spam. Gleb Budman, director of product management for secure messaging vendor MailFrontier, said, “People out there for whom spam is a serious problem [will need] a company that can react within 24 hours. Microsoft doesn’t do that. They build products over time.” He said the functionality that Microsoft announced it would provide via IMF next year has been available in MailFrontier’s products for a year and a half.

Microsoft needs to do something to show it’s addressing the spam problem, these vendors said, and its Exchange add-on may be enough for small businesses and individuals. “This is Microsoft’s typical strategy,” said MailFrontier’s Budman. “They build a platform, put some basic functionality into the platform, then they have an API for vendors to add value. That’s the path they’ll go down and they’ll be fine.” And so, supposedly, will be the spam filtering vendors getting Microsoft’s back.

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