Stepping out of messaging's mainstream

Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange and IBM Corp.'s Lotus Notes have become synonymous with electronic messaging and now command the lion's share of the enterprise messaging market.

Yet government agencies have a number of e-mail alternatives to those mass-market products. Companies such as Critical Path Inc. and Mirapoint Inc., which grew up providing messaging solutions for carriers and service providers, compete for government customers. Other market participants with government-sector interests include Gordano Ltd., Ipswitch Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Suse Linux.

Why would an agency opt for an alternative provider, given Exchange's dominance as a de facto standard and Notes' reputation for customer loyalty? Government and industry executives cite ease of administration and total cost of ownership as important factors. Some customers also point to robust spam filtering, which is an important consideration for users with beleaguered inboxes.

But security is the key driver that has customers looking elsewhere. Integrators report a greater interest in e-mail security, after the recent virus and worm attacks that pounded the Microsoft Windows environment.

"Within the government, people are asking me for a more secure solution," said Art Sands, chief operating officer at AC Technology Inc., a Herndon, Va., integrator. "Secure messaging is going to become more and more important as information exchange becomes more and more sensitive."

Security-minded mail

Security was the primary factor when the Appraisal Subcommittee of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council selected Gordano as its e-mail vendor, said Ben Henson, the subcommittee's executive director. Subcommittee members ensure that real estate appraisers are trained and tested according to industry standards. Gordano's Messaging Suite, Henson said, is "not as full of holes as [Microsoft's e-mail client] Outlook and Exchange have proven to be in recent years."

The messaging suite includes GMS Anti-Virus, which uses Authentium Inc.'s Command Antivirus engine. The antivirus capability uses various detection methods, including heuristics. The heuristic approach analyzes suspect code for virus-like behavior rather than matching a suspected virus to a known virus signature. Gordano's software resides on a single server at the small agency, supporting 20 mailboxes. "We haven't had any problems with the product," Henson said, noting that the software has been in place for about three years.

Like Gordano's Messaging Suite, Mirapoint's Message Server has a built-in antivirus capability. Mirapoint offers an appliance solution, which includes hardware, an operating system based on FreeBSD and messaging software. The integrated antivirus feature makes it easier for customers, who otherwise would have to "go out and source third-party relationships," said Jeff Brainard, senior product marketing manager at Mirapoint.

Mirapoint's government customers, which include the Homeland Security Department, tend to be security minded. Some deploy Mirapoint strictly as an antivirus utility, rather than as a complete e-mail server. For example, the Illinois Public Health Department employs Mirapoint between the organization's Novell Inc. Groupwise mail server and its firewall.

Greg DeBrun, a network engineer with Illinois' health department, said Mirapoint has done a great job as a virus scanner, shielding the department from the Blaster worm and other recent outbreaks.

Similarly, Sendmail Inc.'s Mailstream Manager has found a role at networks' Internet firewall boundary. Sendmail's e-mail management solution provides a perimeter routing infrastructure, integrating an enterprise's e-mail servers. Mailstream Manager includes Sendmail Anti-Virus Filter, which uses Network Associates Inc.'s McAfee Olympus scanning engine. Federal customers include the Executive Office of the President.

J.F. Sullivan, director of product management at Sendmail, said providing a secure wrapper for such products as Exchange and Notes now represents about 40 percent of the company's revenue. "This is a very heavy part of our business," he said.

Hold the spam

The need to improve spam filtering has led some agencies to replace or augment e-mail systems.

When Robert Hempel joined the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau nine months ago, the Kentucky government affiliate was awash in spam. The existing Novell NetMail e-mail system had been running with open relay, a service spammers exploit to disguise the origin of messages. Officials disabled the relay, but that didn't solve their own unsolicited bulk mail problem. Each morning, workers found 250 to 450 e-mails in their inboxes, few of which were legitimate, said Hempel, the convention bureau's information technology manager.

Hempel initially tried to fix the NetMail system but soon turned to Ipswitch Inc.'s IMail server. IMail's antispam capability was the "feature that really brought IMail to the forefront," he said. The server, which has been running for about six months, handles all e-mail duties for the office. It has halted the spam onslaught, save for a couple of stray messages.

IMail ships with a built-in antispam feature that uses Bayesian statistical filtering among other techniques. Bayesian filters analyze words based on their frequency in legitimate mail compared to spam, according to Ipswitch officials.

Mirapoint's Message Server also provides integrated spam filtering. At the gateway level, messages are analyzed using heuristic rules and external blacklists of known spam-generating e-mail servers. The product also lets administrators establish their own blacklists or lists of preapproved senders. In addition, Mirapoint offers user controls for defining what is, and isn't, spam, Brainard said.

With alternative e-mail servers, such antispam and antivirus features are available at lower prices than those for more mainstream solutions.

Hempel said his group purchased IMail and a one-year service contract for a tenth of the cost of Exchange. He said cost kept Microsoft's e-mail server out of the running. The convention bureau has 100 employees.

Executives at alternative e-mail vendors contend that their solutions are designed to support more mailboxes per server than their widely installed competitors. Oakland County, Mich., has found this to be the case with Mirapoint. The county uses Mirapoint internally and to provide e-mail services to cities, villages and townships.

Rob Carroll, network systems specialist, said the county uses four Mirapoint e-mail appliances, which support about 10,000 mailboxes. Use of Exchange would have required more than a dozen Exchange servers, he said.

Microsoft officials, who said the company is not bumping into other e-mail vendors in the federal market, said they believe mailbox comparisons are being made with older versions of Exchange. The scalability of Exchange 5.5 was limited because of factors such as the time required for backup and restore operations. But Exchange Server 2003, launched in October, supports Windows Server 2003's Volume Shadow Copy service. This feature enables nearly instantaneous backups, according to Microsoft officials.

As a result of faster backups and other performance tweaks, Exchange 2003 can support 3,000 to 5,000 mailboxes per server, compared with 1,000 to 2,000 per server for Exchange 5.5, according to Microsoft officials. Thus, the latest version of Exchange provides an opportunity to consolidate servers, they said.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.


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