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The Challenge of Spam for SMBs

By Drew Barrows
May 2009
 
When the number of unwanted messages in Phil Mansfield's email inbox that was touting things like prescription medication, mortgage loans, university diplomas and bank loan offerings outnumbered legitimate business correspondence by as much as five to one, he knew something had to be done about the spam flooding his inbox.

"We get spam probably more than one per minute," said Phil Mansfield, Systems Administrator II at Penn State, the Intercollegiate Athletics Department. "If I want to see when something went wrong -- like a server crash -- the easiest thing to do is look at the spam list. There's so much spam coming in, it's literally all the time."
 
While spam has probably annoyed anyone with an email address at some point, the annoyance can become a significant business problem for small and midsized businesses (SMBs). The desire to have open communication lines for new and existing clients through email leaves SMBs -- which lack the IT staff and infrastructure dollars of larger companies -- especially vulnerable to spammers prowling the Internet for new addresses to target.

One such company that has popped out of the woodwork and seems to be developing a name for itself in providing email security solutions to support such SMBs is SpamTitan (www.spamtitan.com). As a West Coast Labs’ certified antivirus software, SpamTitan addresses the rigorous malware environments and IT network security challenges SMBs contend with on a daily basis.  Its enhanced anti-virus solution for SMBs offers not only email security but also protection from viruses, trojans, phishing and unwanted content, in addition to spam. 
 
In today’s economy, it makes sense that SMBs are very careful with their IT spend and want more for their money. They would want multi layered anti-spam analyses which would result in almost 98% Spam detection, less than 0.03% false positive rate, content filtering, inward and outward email scanning, email disclaimer capabilities, spam management functionality including email quarantine reports, automatic updates of anti-virus, anti-spam, version releases and system backup and lastly a simple download and installation process at an affordable price. The price for up to 100 users is $550, which is practically unheard of when it has been rated by numerous independent test labs as being an enterprise-class software in terms of functionality and support.
 
Universities and colleges are in the same boat as the SMBs. They actually have even more challenges in that they have to safeguard the email and data against spam and viruses due to the rise of P2P, file sharing, and MP3 trading on campuses. SpamTitan addresses these issues. The Intercollegiate Athletics Department at Penn State that needed an affordable solution to resolve server problems and eliminate some 6300 email spams a day that were affecting email performance.

"I believe that threats come from a wide variety of sources, but e-mail is the main vector," says Mansfield. "It's the easiest to attack and is always allowed through the firewall. To supplement the existing antivirus software already installed, we searched out a front-end gateway SMTP solution. We were looking for a solution that would provide greater spam filtration as well as free up the workload of the back-end provider.

"It's one thing to be an expert in email and run your own exchange server, but it's quite another thing to be an expert in spam, or malware in general," said Richi Jennings, lead analyst for spam services at San Francisco-based Ferris Research Inc. Spammers constantly change tactics, and there are "literally hundreds" of antispam products available to choose from, making it difficult for IT staffers to keep up, Jennings said. "It's really hard, if you're not a really large organization with dedicated IT people who know what they're doing," he said.

The executives at SpamTitan realized that and decided to make the process of handling spam as easily as possible by practically eliminating implementation challenges. . SpamTitan was the first to provide VMWare certified virtual email appliance. Mansfield tested out SpamTitan for free by simply downloading the software off the Internet and then got it up and running for hundreds of users within an hour.
 
Ferris estimates that 80% to 90% of all email messages sent over the Internet are spam, including some that are sent to nonexistent addresses or are blocked by filters. Ferris estimates spam will cost companies $50 billion worldwide, in terms of antispam protection spending, help desk requests, time lost to deleting unwanted messages and wasted bandwidth and electricity.

At Penn State, the Intercollegiate Athletics Department, which has more than 300 email users, used an innovative technique to filter spam: It isolated itself from the university's centralized IT system and installed its own open source appliance. That's because Phil Mansfield, systems administrator for the department, discovered that the university's in-house anti-spam software, installed directly on the Microsoft Outlook email server, shut down antivirus functions completely when there were problems with the server. This affected email performance for the entire athletics group.

Ronan Kavanagh, SpamTitan CEO,  believes an open source, easy-to-use system that offers what he calls "enterprise-class features at a very affordable price" is a must to fulfill SMBs needs.  

"Physical appliances are valuable because you don't have to deploy software on top of your server, which oftentimes doesn't mesh well," said Teney Takahashi, market analyst at Palo Alto, Calif.-based The Radicati Group Inc. "Appliances are designed from the ground up to handle e-mail."

Companies that have sufficient staff to keep track of periodic updates and can afford a one-time up-front payment may find physical appliances attractive choices. Many appliance companies are starting to finance their products, Jennings said. However, they usually require management from IT staff and could leave companies without a redundant system vulnerable in case of a fire or butter-fingered IT staffers.

"If you're buying an appliance you have to think about availability," Jennings said. "If the box dies or if you drop it on the floor, how quickly can you get a replacement? It depends on how important quick mail delivery is to you."
 
Jennings and Takahashi both recommend third-party hosted solutions or the use of virtual appliances for smaller companies, in order to receive reliable, specialized antispam services on a set-fee schedule or manage simple downloads off the Internet for virtual appliances.

"Hosting costs more in terms of license fees, though all hosting companies would argue that from a total cost of ownership perspective it probably costs the same or less than appliances because there's so much less skin, less effort from an IT perspective," Jennings said.
Utilizing a virtual appliance that is easy to use and doesn’t require more than one IT person to download and set it up seems the easiest of solutions.

Managed antispam solutions can cost between $1 and $10 per user per month, Takahashi said. SMBs should make sure the updates, maintenance and other support services are spelled out in the service-level agreement.

The two criteria generally used to rate the effectiveness of antispam measures are the percentage of total spam messages that get blocked -- generally in the range of 90% or more -- and the rate of "false positives" or legitimate messages that get blocked, which is usually well under 1%.

Some companies will advertise false-positive rates that seem super effective on the surface, like .001%. However, Jennings noted, for an SMB user who receives 100 legitimate email messages per week, that translates into one false positive every 10 weeks. For someone receiving 1,000 messages per week, that's one false positive per week. And that single false positive could impact business if it is an important sales lead or client question, Jennings said.

False positives have never been a problem for Mansfield. When he first installed SpamTitan, he checked the quarantine folder full of blocked messages every day to ensure no legitimate messages had been blocked. Now he checks it less than once per week.
 
West Coast Labs awarded the Checkmark Premium Anti-Spam Certification for its VMware email solution. The independent test firm concluded that SpamTitan’s VMware virtual appliance proved incredibly easy to install, manage, test, and backup.  SpamTitan achieved a greater than 99% accuracy rating for spam filtration with zero false positives. The labs could successfully block close to all spam while ensuring legitimate emails would not be blocked or lost. Additionally significant advantages reported were improved ease of use in the evaluation and testing process, while noting real gains to business users, in terms of potential redundancy, backup, scalability, and mobility improvements.
 
“This Checkmark PREMIUM rating is a testament to our commitment in providing the power, performance and usability that our customers need in the fight against the growing spam problem,” stated Ronan Kavanagh, SpamTitan President and CEO. “We are extremely pleased that an independent testing lab further validates SpamTitan’s effectiveness as we have always excelled at providing new performance functionality, optimized spam filtration, and an ease of use and scaleability that is unique in the market.”
 
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