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Trashing spam

There’s no shortage of software available for fighting spam, but tech administrators may also want to consider another option as well: handing the work over to someone else.

Spam. Chances are, you’re just sick of hearing about it as you are of getting it. And, it seems, there’s no end in sight. With the debate over the Can-Spam Act and more software companies developing new anti-spam solutions every month, it’s the topic du jour.

But, in many ways, it’s so prevalent for a good reason. What used to be a nuisance is now a serious security threat. As e-mail worms slither into in-boxes worldwide, some viruses have appeared that don’t rely on user action to spread in a network. Then, too, it seems that a wealth of user education still doesn’t stop some people from opening every attached file that lands in their electronic realm. In schools, as with companies, the situation presents a multitude of dangers, like downed systems, hijacked files, and identity theft possibilities.

Schools have additional considerations when fighting spam; not only are they on tight budgets, but also they have to protect students from, shall we say, racy and inappropriate images. There’s no shortage of software available for the good fight, but tech administrators may also want to consider another option as well: handing the work over to someone else.

In the past few years, outsourcing anti-spam tasks has become more popular as spam has become more sophisticated and prevalent. After all, why drown in the spam flood when someone else can stop the stuff before it even gets to your network?

Host with the most

Nearly everyone thinks of spam as garbage, but Mark Sunner, CTO of e-mail security firm MessageLabs, prefers to imagine it as raw sewage. It isn’t just linguistic nuance; rather, it’s a way to understand how anti-spam services work.

“The whole approach is like a water filtration system,” he says. “When you turn on the tap at home, you expect your water to be pre-filtered. You don’t have to know about the latest strain of botulism, or about the latest mineral counts in the groundwater.” Similarly, with anti-spam services, IT managers don’t have to keep up with the newest worms and their variations, endlessly tweaking their systems to block Korgo, Sasser, Netsky, and the rest. They can just sit back and let the filtered e-mail flow.

Sunner says, “Our whole argument is that spam control has to be done at the Internet level. You can buy software, but the fact is that it’s a real game of cat-and-mouse with spammers. Keeping up with them is a 24-hour job, which is out of the realm of most administrators.”

Another benefit to working with an outsourced service is that many coordinate with ISPs to implement more aggressive scanning procedures, Sunner says. This means that it isn’t just one school’s IT department trying to shut down spammers–it’s a squad of technology experts whose sole mission is to keep that filtration system squeaky clean.

Getting schooled

Although Sunner notes that a service like MessageLabs works for any kind of company as well as schools, there are special considerations that schools have that can be addressed with a service. More plainly, there’s the porn problem.

Employees at a company are usually fine about trashing messages about the size of certain body parts or what can be done with the parts in question. But many schools are now giving e-mail accounts to students, even those in elementary school. Having a 3rd grader get an ad for low mortgage rates is one thing; it’s quite another when they get messages containing graphic images that even adults find shocking.

Sunner notes that spam services have been working on refining pornography filters in the last few years. The result is that IT administrators can use the services and tweak the filters to customize what gets in and what doesn’t. “You’re going to have a different level of material coming into a school than you do to, say, the offices of a magazine like Vogue,” he says.

Anti-spam services also have another benefit, beyond just filtering. They can set parameters on outgoing mail. Andrew Lochart, director of product marketing for e-mail security firm Postini, notes that many schools think of the e-mail security problem in terms of what’s coming in, without also considering what’s being sent out.

“We would encourage a school’s IT department to sit down and think about all the ways that e-mail is used and how it can be abused,” Lochart says. “There are a variety of malicious behaviors that can be done. Schools need to look for a comprehensive solution to all of them.”

Control center

Choosing an anti-spam service is much like picking any kind of outsourced firm, similar to those used for data storage and recovery, or database management. The company has to work for you and your unique needs. Lochart advises schools to look at e-mail security firms that allow for customized policies and some form of end user control. Although elementary schools won’t want to give kids the ability to tweak their own settings, universities would probably choose to grant students more control.

“The problem with spam is that a lot of it is in the eye of the beholder,” Lochart notes. “That’s why it’s important to be able to block what you want, and not just use a set of canned rules about what should be stopped.”

Some services offer a multi-step customization approach that could work well for schools. ContentCatcher, for example, examines user behavior and conversational partners. Glenn Dekhayser, the company’s senior vice president, says “We look at what’s good, not just what’s bad.”

There’s also the issue of cost. Services cost more than software, but when considering whether to outsource or keep filtering in-house, an IT department has to factor in the amount of time spent doing patches, filter tweaking, and other anti-spam tasks. Dekhayser notes that most of his company’s customers have tried the software route, and found it too taxing. The cost of ContentCatcher starts at about $200 per month. Even in the higher cost tiers, Dekhayser boasts that they’ve never lost a customer. “It’s a delicate art to get spam filtering right,” he says. “That’s why so many people are finding it’s easier to have someone like us working on it full-time.”

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