You've Got Mail — Messaging Server Trends and Must-Haves

by Aaron Weiss

E-mail has always been thought of as the 'killer app' of the Internet. With a landscape mired in security risks and other electronic communications options, will it remain entrenched? We look at the latest trends and concerns.

E-mail has long been considered the "killer app" of the Internet. Some 12 trillion e-mail messages are estimated to be sent around the globe every year — and that figure alone grows by the day.

The overall e-mail server market continues to grow and is roughly split between Unix-like installations and Windows-based platforms. Within the realm of Unix-like operating systems such as Linux, Solaris, and BSD, the venerable sendmail continues to rule the roost. Newer rivals exim and postfix occupy much of the remaining territory. All three are highly flexible, open-ended mail servers which, with sufficient administrator know-how, can be extended to handle an extraordinary variety of e-mail management needs. The dominant Unix mail servers are typically free software although, given their relatively high learning curves, they do incur an ongoing cost of operation.

A wider variety of mail servers populate the Windows landscape. While Microsoft Exchange stands atop the pack, a long list of alternatives including ArGoSoft Mail Server Pro, Avirt MailServer, CommuniGate Pro, Eudora WorldMail Server, FTGate Pro, Kerio Mail Server, Lotus Domino, MDaemon, and Merak Mail Server remain viable players. Along with a wide variety of e-mail server choices on Windows comes an equally wide variation in licensing fees, ranging from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. Roughly speaking, the top-tier prices correlate with servers designed for extremely demanding and massive scale environments.

Security Reigns

Along with the massive surge in e-mail usage around the globe, an even more astounding and troublesome trend continues to emerge. A rapidly increasing percentage of e-mail messages are unsolicited — and sometimes malicious, from conventional spam to virus-laden carriers to so-called phishing scams. In early 2003, the oft-cited estimate of e-mail considered spam was approximately 40 percent; by early 2004 this figure had jumped to 60 percent. At the start of 2005, some sources estimate spam comprises as much as 70 percent to 80 percent of global e-mail traffic.

In early 2003, the oft-cited estimate of e-mail considered spam was approximately 40 percent; by early 2004 this figure had jumped to 60 percent. At the start of 2005, some sources estimate spam comprises as much as 70 percent to 80 percent of global e-mail traffic.

The burden of spam and viruses on enterprises is significant — as much as $40 billion in support and infrastructure costs just to deal with the problem. Consequently, "Security has been the key focus of corporations," said Teney Takahashi, an analyst for The Radicati Group, a market research company in the e-mail and messaging space.

Not surprisingly, anti-spam and anti-virus features have been the most common upgrades to mail server packages in the past year. A strong anti-spam feature set will offer several defenses, which work in combination to trap the majority of incoming spam.

The current Bayesian filters are much more sophisticated than previously popular content filters. Bayesain filters analyze patterns in messages rather than looking only at specific words, and they learn as spam content itself evolves. Blacklist support is an effective way to block e-mail from known spam sources — particularly dictionary-based spam attacks, which can flood a server with thousands of messages per minute. Whitelists can be useful, particularly with mailing list messages, but should be relied on cautiously. Because many spam- and virus-spawned message spoof their "From" addresses from local users' address books, they can evade whitelists.

Support for DNS Blacklists, such as Spamcop and ORDB, can provide the server with real-time information on spam sources that gets automatically updated as spammers migrate among servers. Attachment Filters can restrict the kinds of attachments allowed through the server, potentially reducing exposure to virus infections on local machines. And support for the Sender Policy Framework (SPF), while still maturing, can help verify the authenticity of a message's origins and weed out messages with forged headers, a common practice behind many malicious messages.

When it comes to anti-virus support, most mail servers turn the nitty gritty work over to third-party engines. Typically, a separate license is needed for anti-virus defense as an ongoing cost for access to continually updated virus definitions. There are exceptions, such as 602 Software's 602LAN SUITE, which includes a fully integrated and self-updated anti-virus feature. But more often you will find, and should minimally expect, support for third-party anti-virus scanners. With an integrated scanner, the mail server can flag, disinfect, or quarantine messages with attached viruses — potentially saving a lot of headaches and support costs down the road.

>> Are Groupware Capabilities Necessary?

Groupware and Collaboration

Given the necessary heavy emphasis on security, "Collaboration is a nice-to-have, but it is not critical. Corporations are not able to dedicate the budget to collaboration that they are able to reserve for security," explains Radicati's Takahashi.

Most organizations that do employ collaboration tools like calendaring, task scheduling, and instant messaging rely on the combination of Microsoft Exchange server and Microsoft Outlook client. Several alternative e-mail servers have begun to nudge their way into the groupware space, either through connections with the Microsoft platform or building their own.

Both Kerio Mail Server and CommuniGate Pro, for example, are mail servers that offer MAPI connectors for Microsoft Outlook users. Using these connectors, Outlook users can connect to these mail servers, rather than a Microsoft Exchange server, to take advantage of collaboration features.

Some products take a different approach to groupware. Both FirstClass and FTGate4 messaging servers go beyond traditional e-mail and into collaboration features that can be accessed using their own client software, the FirstClass client and Floosietek's SolSight, respectively. These vendors have sought to fully replace, rather than integrate with, the Microsoft groupware chain on both the server and client sides.


Two forces have pushed the matter of e-mail archival further to the center of enterprises' radar. Given the massive volume of e-mail coming and going at organizations of all sizes, the need for routine backup is vital. Moving ever-growing stacks of e-mail to offline archives and reducing the load for online storage has given rise to third-party archival tools.

E-mail users have gone from appreciating to expecting remote Web-based access to their e-mail, a trend that many in the e-mail server market quickly caught on to.

The other push has been legislative measures, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the United States, and the increasing relevance of e-mail to matters of legal discovery in general. In some cases, businesses may need to retain copies of all incoming and outgoing e-mail for as long as seven years. To hasten the retrieval of messages and ensure their integrity, archival tools must not only maintain detailed indexes but also track through the event logs every action in the life cycle of a message.

Given the rigorous demands of e-mail archives, most of the heavy lifting has been left to third-party products. At best, e-mail servers may include facilities for integrating third-party archival tools, such as Microsoft Exchange's "journaling" feature, which keeps duplicate copies of all messages passing through the server in a special catch-all account. But for serious e-mail archival, particularly for compliance purposes, the action is taking place outside the e-mail server market itself. Products like Connected ArchiveStore and ZipLip are independent solutions for tackling the complex requirements of maintaining trustworthy archives.


Popularized at first by free, advertising-supported services such as Yahoo! Mail and Microsoft's Hotmail, a significant percentage of e-mail users now expect Web-based e-mail interfaces. In addition to being simpler to use than typical locally installed e-mail clients, Webmail makes e-mail available from anywhere.

As a result, more and more e-mail servers are including a Webmail component. E-mail users have gone from appreciating to expecting remote Web-based access to their e-mail, a trend that many in the e-mail server market quickly caught on to.

Looking Ahead

Security will probably remain the e-mail server focus for 2005, as servers grow more sophisticated in their ability to minimize the crushing weight of unsolicited messages. Expect to see a wider implementation of tools to enforce e-mail authenticity and challenge messages with questionable origins.

Because of strong competition, particularly in the Windows e-mail server market, groupware and collaboration tools will also continue to evolve as a way to differentiate products from each other as well as to compete with the de facto standard that Microsoft Exchange has set.

This article was originally published on Wednesday Jan 19th 2005
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