I love the service model. Some guys (Im one of them) like running their own systems and tuning them and being “self-sufficient,” but for almost any real company out there running your own perimeter, security is not core to your business. Why not hire someone else to do it? Even IBMs in the business now.
E-mail security is a great candidate for outsourcing for a number of reasons. E-mail is critical, but people expect a delay of some kind in delivery. Routing it through someone elses network is not unreasonable, if the delay is kept fairly short.
There are a few big companies providing services for e-mail security. Theres SpamShark from FrontBridge Technologies (Ziff Davis Media uses this service for ziffdavis.com mail); MessageLabs, which recently announced a reseller agreement with IBM; and Postini, which claims to be the fourth largest processor of e-mail in the United States. There is also eDoxs, which offers the Brighmail AntiSpam suite in an ASP model (Brightmail is now owned by Symantec).
So there are lots of choices in the e-mail security service space, and if you dont like what youre getting youre in a much better position to take your business elsewhere than if you had set up security products running in your own data center.
The list of advantages to the service model is long and appealing. The service provider sees a lot more mail than your IT people do, so they are more likely to see and deal with new threats than you can. They scan everything with multiple scanners. They have people on staff who specialize in identifying new threats. Some of them will queue up your mail if your servers go down. They protect your networks against dictionary and other harvesting attacks, and the spam they block never gets to your network to clog up your bandwidth.
Being in the security business, such companies may be hardened against attack better than you are, but this isnt a guarantee. Even the best-designed services of this type can be attacked in surprising ways, as Akamai was recently. In fact, Faceless National Corp. may be less of a hacker target than NeatoSecurity Technologies. Its a balancing act, but I still like the odds of trusting a service like Postini or FrontBridge rather than having to pay my own IT people to do it.
Being a service also puts these companies in a good position to offer added services. They all protect against spam and viruses and other malware, and some offer filtering against phishing and pornographic materials. MessageLabs actually claims to be able to analyze images to determine if they contain pornography.
What will happen to these services in an era of SMTP authentication? Its tempting to think that they will be less necessary, but I think that authentication will just make these services more effective, and certainly faster. Sure, it will also put the do-it-yourselfer like me in a better position, but it doesnt do all the work for me.
For the next year or two, as standards are worked out in the industry, it will probably be necessary to support multiple standards. I dont know what the service providers plans are in this regard, but they probably should offer as a user-controllable policy the ability to implement different authentication standards, such as the old SPF, the new SPF and Domain Keys. The customer of such services still typically controls his own DNS, so just as the service gives the customer an address for the MX records they will need to provide proper DNS record data for authentication to the customer.
The industry representatives in the recent announcement by the AntiSpam Technical Alliance took pains to say that authentication wasnt “the answer” to spam, but that it was a tool to make anti-spam enforcement more effective. Theyre right, and the tools work for services just as well as they do for products.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
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