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Networking: E-mail as slow as snail mail?

By GENE KOPROWSKI   |   March 6, 2006 at 10:57 AM
CHICAGO, March 6 (UPI) -- You send a crucial e-mail on a Monday morning, but it doesn't arrive in the client's mailbox, across town, until Thursday afternoon. You lose a pending deal. Exasperating? Yes, but increasingly, as a result of the profound demands placed on e-mail network servers, including spam, spyware and viruses, legitimate e-mail messages that should take seconds to get to the intended recipient may take days, experts tell United Press International's Networking. E-mail delivery, it seems, is now sometimes as slow as the U.S. Postal Service.

Last week the technology developer MX ToolBox Inc. launched the first ever e-mail performance index, the first index to rate the health and performance of thousands of e-mail systems across the globe, at http://www.mxtoolbox.com/MXWATCH.aspx

As of the end of last week, after an exceptionally strange week, even by Internet standards, e-mail network "transaction times have returned to normal levels. Friday has averaged 4.5 percent faster response than expected. As expected, we see a sharp drop-off at 4:00p.m. CT (5:00 p.m. in the East), as people flee their cubicles for some R&R," according to an advisory issued by MX ToolBox.

But knowing that there is a problem with e-mail flow is one thing. Making sure your e-mail gets where it is supposed to go is quite another, experts tell Networking.

That's prompting companies -- mostly large corporations, for now -- to monitor the inflow and outflow of e-mail from their servers.

"With respect to e-mail performance, and reliability, many of our large enterprise customers are very concerned about 'evening out' their inbound mail traffic volume," said Andres Kohn, vice president of product management for messaging security software vendor, Cupertino, Calif.-based Proofpoint. "That is, they want to minimize the large traffic spikes that can be generated by inbound spam messages, directory harvest attacks, where spammers are sending e-mails to random addresses at the company domain, hoping to find valid addresses and e-mail messages generated by virus attacks."

Software can be used to throttle those unwanted e-mail messages -- automatically blocking messages that seem malevolent. If a certain IP address starts sending a high percentage of spam or virus-laden messages, the servers can then "cut off" that connection or limit the message acceptance from it to a very slow rate, experts said.

"By blocking such connections out at the enterprise gateway, bandwidth, storage and e-mail server processing power is conserved for legitimate e-mail senders," said Kohn.

The name for this technique is the martial-sounding "threat prevention," said Dave Braucht, a systems engineer at Resource Computing Inc., based in Spokane, Wash.

The threat spikes can vary dramatically -- increasing by 10 times normal volume to 100 times normal e-mail volume in a single day. "Spam, virus and phishing attacks vary dramatically, day-to-day," said Patrick Peterson, chief technology officer of IronPort Systems, the San Francisco-based network security company. However, "legitimate message volume changes little day-to-day."

According to research by IronPort, there has been a 200-percent increase in e-mail-borne spyware during the last six months. Attacks by instant-messaging software are also on the rise.

Network administrators are examining reports, some of which are automatically generated, daily, by software programs, to see what time the spike in spam occurs, and proactively move to prevent it the next time. They are watching for the "reputation" of the e-mail sender's address, before they let the messages through the perimeter of the network. "E-mail managers and administrators will want to be equipped with third-generation, anti-spam protection that applies reputation at the network perimeter, before messages are received onto a network, thereby eliminating known bad-sender e-mail from the network and avoiding the bandwidth load of unwanted messages," said Peterson.

Another tool, often used by network administrators, is technology, developed by EMC and others, that captures all incoming e-mail messages, in real-time, fully indexes them, and migrates them from a server to a centralized archive. That enables record retention for legal compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Health Information Privacy and Protection Act rules and other federal regulations. It also ferrets out online predators.

Even though most of the performance problems are the result of malicious hackers, there are also less malevolent sources. "Many professionals -- I'm guilty -- use their e-mail inboxes as to-do lists, even though inboxes don't structure task and calendar information well," said Kawika Holbrook, an account executive at Sterling Communications, based in Los Gatos, Calif. "My dream is to have a program smart enough to offer up person or group calendar appointments and tasks based on the text of the message."

Until that happens, e-mail delivery may still sometimes be a slow as snail mail.

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Gene Koprowski is a Lilly Endowment Award winning columnist for United Press International, for whom he covers networking and telecommunications. E-mail: hitech@upi.com

© 2006 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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