More on Security Services

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2003-05-08 Print this article Print

I mentioned performance as an advantage, but of course, theres also a potential performance downside to this approach. Outside systems introduce a latency that is somewhat outside your control. With respect to functions such as e-mail, I think people understand that a certain amount of latency is built into the model, and they accept it. However, its reasonable to expect a certain level of performance. Introducing a 15-minute delay in e-mail would be bad, for example. Such service-level agreements (SLAs) typically also include guarantees of uptime to a certain level.

My own ISP, (a DSL ISP using Covad circuits), is something of a pioneer in this area. For some time the company has offered a semi-managed firewall and it is on the verge of releasing anti-spam and antivirus support. But antivirus support at the ISP level (which usually means e-mail antivirus) has been rare among ISPs, although Yahoo! Mail and Microsofts Hotmail have had antivirus scanning built-in for years.

Now things are somewhat different when it comes to spam. A growing number of ISPs claim to provide spam-blocking capabilities. There are also numerous corporate spam-filtering service solutions, such as FrontBridge Technologies. FrontBridges solution does everything you would want to do and many things you probably dont have the resources to do; for example, its antivirus checking for e-mail goes through AV engines from multiple vendors, and it checks for updates every 10 minutes. You control the criteria for evaluating spam, including your own whitelist, proprietary blacklists and a rules database. FrontBridge has seven geographically distributed data centers on multiple backbones for better redundancy and performance. Finally, if your mail server is down, the company will cache and queue your mail for up to five days.

Is it cheaper? Thats hard for me to say; FrontBridge prices based on bandwidth (about 30 cents per megabyte) or by user (about $2 to $3 per month per user). I can easily see that being cheaper, especially if you can treat the whole service as an expense as opposed to having to depreciate your own equipment.

Services have another advantage: Providing for many customers gives them a perspective that can help everyone. I-TRAP Internet Security Servicesoffers a firewall monitoring/intrusion-detection system that uses a customized, hardened Linux server on the customer premises, but the real smarts are on a server back at I-TRAP. Because it sees so large a set of attacks and traffic it can apply statistical analysis to events at your site to gauge their seriousness. I-TRAP also provides sophisticated reporting capabilities that are easy to update because they are on a central server.

Serice providers usually claim that their offerings save their customers money, and perhaps they do; I havent run the numbers, so I dont know for sure. But even if they cost the same, there would still be advantages to the service approach, because it simplifies your own business by not having to manage these things yourself and not having your own servers directly exposed to the Internet. It also affords you flexibility. Its probably easier to switch between service providers than it is to change security software youre running in-house.

I still think that one day consumers will buy into these security services and everyone will be better off for it. That day doesnt seem a whole lot closer today, but it still seems inevitable.

Security Supersite Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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