E-mail Lockdown

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Two surrogate e-mail platforms from MessageOne and Mirapoint can safeguard your network infrastructure.

SCHOOLS, MUCH LIKE BUSINESSES, are dealing with a software paradox: The more popular a network software platform becomes, the more likely hackers will target it for attack.

Take Microsoft’s (www.microsoft.com) Exchange Server. In the world of e-mail software, Exchange has evolved into a highly scalable communications platform since its debut in 1994. In fact, the software’s popularity continues to grow. Exchange’s installed base will nearly double to 225.2 million electronic mailboxes by 2008, up from 114.2 million this year, predicts Radicati Group Inc. (www.radicati.com) of Palo Alto, CA.

Still, Bill Gates and his customers can’t afford to rest on their laurels. All of those electronic mailboxes provide tempting target practice for hackers who design worms, viruses, phishing scams, and other digital attacks. Not by coincidence, the US market for e-mail security will grow to $5.5 billion by 2010, up from $3.7 billion this year, according to Ferris Research (www.ferris.com), a San Francisco-based market research/consulting firm.

Many districts have spent recent years evaluating antivirus, antispam, and encryption solutions. Those can be wise investments, but I advocate going one step further: In addition to maintaining your existing Windows- and Macintosh-based e-mail environments, sprinkle in one or two niche solutions to keep hackers and unscrupulous users off balance.

Getting Started

For starters, knock on Mirapoint Inc.’s (www. mirapoint.com) door. The Sunnyvale, CA-based company designs network appliances based on FreeBSD (Berkeley Software Distribution), a highly reliable operating system whose foundation was developed at the University of California-Berkeley. Mirapoint’s network applications can secure traditional e-mail systems—such as Exchange Server, IBM’s (www.ibm.com) Lotus Notes, or GroupWise from Novell (www.novell.com)—or replace them entirely.

At first glance, Mirapoint’s product claims appear farfetched. The company says its e-mail systems offer “five nines” (99.999%) reliability, or less than six minutes of unplanned downtime per year. I was skeptical of that claim until I spoke with more than a dozen Mirapoint customers around the country during a CIO road show last year. None of those sources had suffered a significant Mirapoint outage in the past year.

For schools that want to lock down their existing e-mail systems, Mirapoint offers the RazorGate security appliance, a single hardware device that includes spam and virus protection, content filtering, and policy management. It’s like an intelligent firewall designed specifically for your existing e-mail infrastructure.

Nifty, but Mirapoint’s R&D magic doesn’t end there. The company’s other flagship network appliance, known as the Mirapoint Message Server, is a full-blown replacement for traditional e-mail systems. Why make the switch? I’m glad you asked that question. The appliance design means customers can manage all MiraPoint software patches, up- grades, and security tweaks from a single user interface.

Got a Backup Plan?

Every effective security strategy also requires a contingency plan. If disaster strikes and your network infrastructure goes dark, your staff, faculty, and students won’t be able to communicate over e-mail.

To overcome this “doomsday” scenario, put in a call to MessageOne Inc. (www.messageone.com) of Austin, TX. The privately held company’s Emergency Mail System (EMS) protects more than one million e-mail mailboxes from network failures, personal sabotage, and acts of God. EMS is a highly scalable standby e-mail system that schools can activate when their primary e-mail systems fail. Instead of having to install EMS within your network infrastructure, the software and its related services are hosted in MessageOne’s own facilities. In a typical scenario, EMS is one-twentieth the cost of a traditional replication and mirroring solution, because it doesn’t require your school to purchase redundant licenses of your existing e-mail system.

Mirapoint says its e-mail systems offer 99.999% reliability. I was skeptical, until I spoke with more than a dozen Mirapoint customers. None had suffered a significant Mirapoint outage in the past year.

EMS, which I first stumbled across during a CIO teleconference in November, also offers clear security benefits. If a virus or worm attacks your primary e-mail system (say, Exchange, Notes, or GroupWise), EMS will remain unharmed because it’s based on Linux and doesn’t suffer from Windows-specific attacks.

Call a few customer references, and you’ll discover that the MessageOne and Mirapoint solutions are relatively easy to deploy, and less expensive than traditional e-mail environments. In MessageOne’s case, EMS typically costs $1 per user per month—quite a reasonable price for budget-conscious school districts that are seeking to safeguard their data communications.

Joseph C. Panettieri has covered Silicon Valley, business, and K-12 technology issues since 1992.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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