Commercial solutions win, spam loses
Brightmail, FrontBridge, Postini, and Proofpoint overwhelm open source in accuracy, flexibility, and ease
As anyone with an e-mail inbox knows, the spam problem isn't going away. According to a major anti-spam vendor, spam has increased from 8 percent of all e-mail traffic in 2001 to 50 percent in July 2003. Other estimates show that figure as high as 70 percent of all traffic. Two classes of products can help slay spam in the enterprise environment: gateways and services. Both allow you to block spam for all network users at a single, centrally managed point before it hits your mail server.
For this review, I looked at two services and three gateway products. Services filter spam before it arrives at your network, reducing the volume of traffic on your Internet connection. Services also typically offer multiple datacenters for redundancy, high volume, and fast response. Setup requires merely changing the MX (mail exchange) record for your domain. But a service is not under a local administrator's control, so if the service goes down, mail may not get through.
Gateways are harder for spammers to circumvent by sending e-mail to the real mail server's IP address; they offer local control of the anti-spam technology; and they allow mail to continue to arrive if the anti-spam gateway goes down. But a gateway gives the local administrator yet another system to maintain, and the total traffic through your Internet connection remains the same because spam isn't filtered until it reaches your network.
The five products I tested: Brightmail Anti-Spam Enterprise Edition Version 5.1, FrontBridge TrueProtect E-mail Security Suite, Postini Perimeter Manager Enterprise Edition, Proofpoint Protection Server 1.2.1, and SpamAssassin 2.44, an open source spam filter included with Red Hat Linux 9.
In contrast to the commercial products, SpamAssassin represents an older, first-generation anti-spam solution, and its age showed in my tests. It filtered only 62 percent of spam, whereas the other products produced great results, blocking 90 percent to 96 percent of all the spam they encountered with few, if any, legitimate messages blocked.
Differentiating between spam and legitimate messages can be difficult. Newsletters, press releases, and other marketing materials from companies you have a relationship with can be very similar to spam in content. These all present challenges to the filters. The e-mail I used for testing was real e-mail containing many messages that stressed the filters.
I looked at two categories of mail incorrectly identified as spam: false positives that were not critical, such as newsletters and marketing information; and false positives that were critical, such as personal e-mail from colleagues. Each product was tested with a different stream of mail, so the number of messages received varied, but all received enough messages to assess their capabilities.
The critical issue is not that the filter may have misidentified a few e-mails, but how easily those messages can be found and added to a whitelist so that future e-mails from the same source are not stopped. All the products except Brightmail and SpamAssassin allow end-users to add senders to the domain whitelist themselves. Brightmail allows users to forward misidentified e-mails to the administrator, who can choose to add the sender to the whitelist. SpamAssassin allows only the administrator to add to the whitelist, with no direct access for users.