ITU Installs Spam Solution

Posted: July 19, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Fran Rensbarger

The university’s newest weapon against junk e-mail, Mail Frontier Enterprise Gateway, is up and running and available to students, faculty, and staff who wish to opt in now. Town hall meetings to acquaint users with the new system will be held by the Information Technology Unit (ITU) tomorrow from 1 to 2 p.m. and Thursday, July 22, from 10 to 11 a.m. in Innovation Hall, Room 103.

“We will be rolling it out to the university in a couple of weeks, and it is a slick application. With almost 64 percent of the mail coming to Mason being spam, this is a welcome solution,” says Walt Sevon, executive director, Technology Systems Division (TSD). “Spam is a big time-waster at the university. Now, spam will be filtered before it hits your desktop.”

When the Mail Frontier system is implemented university-wide, all e-mail users will be included without having to do anything. Clients will see two changes—fewer e-mails and a daily digest of junk mail held in quarantine, says Tracy S. Holt, Mason’s spam guru and manager of the enterprise messaging team in TSD.

The roll-out schedule is still under discussion. Most likely, all staff, students, administrators, and professional faculty will be brought into Mail Frontier just before classes start in August. At some point after classes begin, the instructional faculty will be in the new system. However, faculty and staff can opt into the new system voluntarily by clicking on the Mail Frontier page,, and following the directions.

“We made the final selection [of a spam solution] based on technology, not on cost, but it was the best product for the best price,” says Ron Secrest, director of enterprise servers and operations in TSD. “We’re pleased. We think we brought a premium product to the university, and we think people will be very happy with it.”

Mail Frontier stood out for a number of reasons. It easily integrated with Mason’s mail system; it is very fast in terms of the number of messages being moved and does not slow down the university mail system; the user interface is simple, easy to navigate, and does not have a lot of confusing extra settings; and users can make their own settings and have it perform the way they want, says Holt.

With Mail Frontier, the server scans the message signature—header, address it came from, body, links, graphics—and compares it with known spam. The gateway also checks whether the return address is real or false. The system gives each message a spam score and compares it with user preference settings. If the spam score is under the threshold or if it meets user preferences, the message goes on to the mailbox. If not, the gateway will quarantine the message in the junk mail box and list it on the daily spam summary.

Under the new system, users can control how aggressively Mail Frontier categorizes spam, and they can also ‘white list’ addresses from which they want to receive mail, no matter what the message or spam score is. Users can transfer messages from quarantine to their inbox, and they can opt out of the system. Quarantined mail is automatically deleted after 14 days. Making changes in the system is simple because most operations can be done from the daily digest by clicking on links there.

To score spam, Mail Frontier uses certain considerations, including a large number of graphics and links; a suspicious mail header such as a forged “from” address; a fingerprint—combinations of words or keywords-that matches known spam; the number of people the message is sent to; and a message signature that matches Mail Frontier’s spam list. The system will screen internal messages as well as incoming e-mail and stop bogus messages.

“A lot of virus messages have the same text,” says Holt, “so Mail Frontier will catch many of them, too.” On top of the junk mail is another 20 percent of e-mail containing viruses that is deleted by the antivirus appliances known as the WebShield before it ever gets to the inbox.

Some faculty and staff already have spam software, but since Mail Frontier runs on the university’s servers, it does not have any direct impact on the desktop, whether it is Windows, Mac, or Unix, says Holt. “I’d recommend that people leave spam filters in place, so in the event that spam gets through our system, it will be processed by their filter. The majority of the mail will get caught by Mail Frontier, especially as it learns.”

An evaluation team, which included faculty, administrators, and support center staff, closely reviewed about a dozen antispam programs, says Holt. Mail Frontier was selected after the final two candidates were given a four-week test.

Mail Frontier has been running at the university since June 1. “Our performance testing mirrored that of Network World,” says Secrest. “Mail Frontier was one of the top finalists in its evaluation. Network World said it was very fast, accurate, and had a low rate of false positives. I have never seen a false positive.”

Prince William Campus will host a spam town hall on Tuesday, July 27, in the Occoquan Building, Room 318, from 3 to 4 p.m. RSVP to Karen Pirhalla at

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