Spam almost brought the servers of AlaWeb Pioneer Services to a grinding halt, according to Hugh Messenger, senior network administrator at AlaWeb. The ISP, serving business and residential customers in Alabama and Florida, was flooded with thousands of connections, slowing customer messages and even blocking some legitimate inbound messages.
"We probably never got more than 200,000 genuine emails a day," Messenger said. "We went from processing that to processing 2 to 3 million spam messages a day."
Companies like AlaWeb are using specialty vendors to reduce spam and control targeted phishing attacks, but industry analysts say larger vendors with more feature sets will dominate the email security market. Buying trends are consolidating around the biggest vendors, but some specialty vendors are surviving.
"We're tracking 18 major vendors that make up 90% of the market," said Peter Firstbrook, a research director at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "It's a saturated market right now."
The highly competitive market is taking a toll on some vendors. Redwood City, Calif.-based Tumbleweed expanded its email security products in 2004 with email firewall, antispam and antivirus appliances. Last week, Axway, an EDI network-based managed file transfer software vendor, announced a merger with Tumbleweed. Firstbrook said Tumbleweed had been steadily losing market share.
Joe Fisher, Tumbleweed's executive vice president of product management, called the market commoditized, and said Tumbleweed changed its strategy to focus on outbound email encryption and managed file transfers.
Functionality, such as data leakage prevention, encryption, antispam, antivirus, and email routing and management are converging to an appliance or services based platform, Firstbrook said.
Small and midsize businesses are turning toward managed services to handle email security. It's a market led by Cisco Systems, Google-Postini, Symantec, Trend Micro, MessageLabs and Microsoft, according to Gartner's Firstbrook.
MailChannels Corp., based in Vancouver, British Columbia, is one player that found a niche in the antispam market. AlaWeb is using MailChannels' Traffic Control software to create a reputation score and slow low-scoring connections during email processing to turn away spammers. MailChannels recently added support of Apache SpamAssassin for Traffic Control users. The company says Traffic Control filters out about 85% of spam, reducing load handling issues. MailChannels is making Traffic Control available for free for low-volume use, less than 10,000 connections a day.
Michael D. Osterman, president and principal analyst of Osterman Research Inc. said a number of vendors offer reputation systems, including IronPort, Commtouch and Secure Computing.
"By blocking most of the traffic before it reaches the corporate network, CPU cycles are saved since blocking based on reputation is much less CPU-intensive than content filtering," Osterman said.
AlaWeb's Messenger said there is some fine tuning that needs to be done to Traffic Control to eliminate false positives. AlaWeb typically places a few users each day on a white list so their messages get through the filter, he said.
"The beauty of a product like Traffic Control is that it can be easily installed and act like a proxy to eliminate a large number of spam toting inbound connections," Messenger said.
When a spammer attempts to connect from a server to send unwanted email, the throttler lets them connect at a slow speed, keeping data flowing at only a few bytes a second. Spamming software senses the slow connection and closes it to find another ISP to serve up the messages.
Like other niche players in the email security market, MailChannels' technology could be acquired by a larger vendor, Osterman said.
"They have good technology," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me to see Microsoft buy them, for example, although I have not heard anything along those lines."