Algonquin College bites back at spam

Rod Martin knew he had a problem on his hands but didn’t realize the extent of it. The manager of network infrastructure with the information technology services group at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Martin began noticing late last year that unwanted e-mail or spam had grown from a small whisper to a loud roar, greatly concerning the college’s 35,000 users.

Despite subscribing to several spam lists – which identify hundreds of known spammers – and successfully blocking more than 1,000 junk e-mail messages daily at peak times, Martin said staff and students who pay for e-mail and ISP-like services from the college were still receiving hundreds of spam messages.

“We would get several irate calls a day from people saying, ‘I have just cleared out 200 spam messages, what are you doing about this?'” Martin said.

In North America, spam is expected to cost businesses more than US$10 billion this year or US$14 per user per month, according to reports from Ferris Research, a San Francisco-based research firm.

That kind of cost and lost productivity was too much for a college environment. By February, Martin decided to search for a solution. During his quest, Martin came across a small Ottawa-based software maker that appeared to have the right answer to the spam problem.

“One of the main problems we have as a college is that we don’t have lots of money but we do have lots of clients,” he explained. “Once we started talking to a lot of different companies, we found that with 35,000 users, the cost just went out of our budget.”

Enter Roaring Penguin, maker of CanIt-PRO anti-spam software. According to David Skoll, president and founder of Roaring Penguin, the software sits directly on the mail server and filters all messages passing through based on an algorithm that weighs and determines spam from legitimate mail.

Skoll explained that CanIT looks at different e-mail characteristics including content, but more importantly, at how the message was initially sent. He said when messages are sent, e-mail servers typically do one of three things: reply that the mail was indeed sent; reply that the mail was not sent and to retry; or reply with a temporary failure message in the case that the server was too busy, for example. During the latter’s occurence, the sending server will retry until the message gets received.

“Spam never retries,” Skoll said. “Spammers don’t care about reliable delivery. They care about mass delivery. Our software has a feature where, the first time it gets a message from an unknown recipient, it sends back a temporary failure code.”

Additionally, CanIT-Pro offers a greater level of end user control than other offerings, according to Algonquin’s Martin. End users are able to customize their own settings in terms of the degree of filtering and they can opt out of mail filtering altogether.

“This is great for us because we have some very technical people here that really want to know what is going on,” Martin said. “On the other hand, we have people who do not have the same technical skill set nor the time to fool around with mail gateways. They just don’t want to get spam.”

Since its deployment in August, CanIt-PRO has successfully blocked and identified over 40 per cent of Algonquin’s incoming e-mail as spam, with an additional 10 per cent as viruses. And, despite original concerns, the software has not interrupted the delivery of legitimate mail – offering a false-positive rate of 0.015 per cent.

“Most people are happy and those who are unhappy can adjust their settings,” Martin said.

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