The pros and cons of outsourcing antivirus protection

any enterprises won't relinquish control of their e-mail scanning to an outsourcer.

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Enterprises that worry about falling victim to the next worm or virus attack may want to consider outsourcing their e-mail scanning.

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The advantages of someone else handling e-mail filtering are similar to the advantages that come with outsourcing anything. The outsourcers can offer a depth of knowledge and efficiency that few individual companies have the resources to match.

There are also some specific advantages to outsourcing antivirus filtering. Often outsourcers use multiple scanning engines, which have the most updated signature files. Also, many have heuristics-based engines that can catch new viruses before the antivirus companies have seen them, much less created a signature file for them.

On the other hand, outsourcing antivirus requires a certain relinquishing of control that some organizations don't feel comfortable with. "We considered doing this but just didn't like the idea of running our 'stuff' through someplace else," said Michael Lawrence, network administrator for the city of Lenexa, Kan.

Lawrence is not alone. SearchSecurity.com recently interviewed several security professionals by e-mail about outsourcing antivirus and e-mail filtering. Many have considered outsourcing their antivirus but few had taken the plunge, for reasons similar to Lawrence's.

Additionally, automatic updates have removed some companies' impetus for outsourcing. Back when an administrator had to manually download and push out all the signature files, outsourcing would have saved a lot of busywork. "Ever since we've automated the update of virus definitions, I consider our environment to be more than manageable," said Pierre Dumoulin, system specialist with research information systems at Merck Frosst Canada & Co. in Kirkland, Quebec.

Companies may also reject outsourcing not on its merits per se, but because they have already sunk a lot of money into their own infrastructure and software subscriptions. Such is the case with April Beachy, director of technology for Tuscarawas County, Ohio.

Beachy finds outsourcing attractive for many reasons: cost, use of multiple scanning engines and the "ability to hold someone else liable for any virus infiltrations," she said.

Also, outsourcing would mean less local updates to bog down systems. "In such a tight economy, lost time is lost productivity, which means lost tax money," Beachy said.

Beyond efficiency and management issues, outsourcing antivirus offers companies an added layer of protection. Using just regular signature-based scanning is "constantly playing catch-up," said John Harrington, marketing director for MessageLabs Ltd., an antivirus and e-mail filtering outsourcer. "No matter how vigilant you are, you can still be the first hit [when using just signature-based antivirus]," he said.

MessageLabs uses antivirus scanners from three vendors, plus its own proprietary scanning engine, Skeptic, which is updated multiple times a day. The scanner can catch previously unknown viruses with a very low false-positive rate, Harrington said.

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