LAS VEGAS—Microsoft Corp. may be building greater e-mail filtering features into Exchange Server 2003, but dont expect the software giant to go it alone in the spam wars.
Microsoft officials, in an interview with eWEEK.com on Monday, said that the upcoming Exchange Intelligent Message Filter (IMF) add-on to Exchange Server 2003 that company Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates demonstrated during his Comdex keynote here on Sunday isnt designed to be the end-all, be-all solution for stopping spam within an enterprises messaging network.
“We feel most companies will run it as a complementary sort of solution,” said T.A. McCann, an Exchange group product manager.
The Exchange IMF is expected to be available in the first half of 2004 for Exchange Server 2003 users under the Microsoft Software Assurance licensing program.
It incorporates Microsofts SmartScreen technology, an approach to spam filtering that Gates introduced a day earlier. SmartScreen uses a machine-learning approach developed by Microsoft Research that incorporates feedback from e-mail users themselves and is already being used with Hotmail and MSN e-mail accounts and in Outlook 2003.
A large part of the feedback for SmartScreen is coming from Microsoft Hotmail users. Microsoft early in 2003 began recruiting hundreds of thousands of Hotmail volunteers to score e-mail as either legitimate or unsolicited, said Kevin Doerr, group business manager of Microsofts anti-spam technology and strategy group. Data based on about 5 million scored messages so far is stored in a database where the SmartScreen technology can investigate the attributes of the legitimate e-mail compared to the spam e-mail for filtering.
Exchange IMF will make use of that SmartScreen technology in order to assign a score to incoming mail, what Microsoft is calling a “spam confidence level,” or SCL. Exchange Server 2003, when introduced in June, already included the SCL feature, allowing third-party anti-spam software to determine a rating so a message could be routed to the appropriate Outlook 2003 mailbox.
With IMF, Exchange Server 2003 itself will be able to conduct filtering and determine a SCL rating. But, McCann points out, that wont make existing third-party anti-spam software irrelevant.
Most enterprises are likely to use Exchange IMF on the Exchange mailbox servers, not those acting as the gateway servers that first receive Internet traffic, McCann said. The Exchange IMF for many companies will become a second layer of protection. They still might choose to run third-party anti-spam software directly at the gateway layer as well as run multiple anti-spam solutions in order to cover many more spam-fighting approaches than machine-learning filtering.
Microsoft also isnt likely to be updating its anti-spam filters as often as many specialized anti-spam vendors, McCann acknowledged. He declined to specify how often the company would provide updates to Exchange IMF, saying that it will depend on how quickly the senders of spam attempt to circumvent it.
“Well continue to move at a more methodical pace of adding to the overall system,” McCann said. “Im not sure we can do that as rapidly as some smart ISVs dedicated to solving that specific (spam) problem.”
Analysts, while applauding Microsofts increased efforts to snuff out spam, say that Microsoft in many ways is behind third-party software providers in the range of anti-spam features it is offering. Ferris Research, in a research note issued on Monday, noted that Microsoft in its work with Exchange and Outlook lacks features such as per-user white lists, server-based quarantines, digests of filtered-out spam for users and reverse DNS lookups.
“For the next few years, we expect this feature lag to remain and that most customers will prefer third-party offerings instead,” wrote Chris Williams and David Ferris of San Francisco-based Ferris.
Microsofts spam attack extends beyond Exchange and Outlook, Doerr said. The anti-spam group itself was formed at the beginning of the year, and in April Microsoft announced that it was working with America Online Inc. and Yahoo Inc. in an industry effort to combat spam.
Gates in his keynote address said that Microsofts anti-spam work has just begun and promised that it would be a multi-pronged approach beyond simply technology.
“These new approaches will shift the tide, that between what were doing with technology and whats being done on the legal front, it makes the business proposition for spammers no longer attractive,” he said. “And weve got to keep working until we achieve that.”
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