Spam was turning eMail into an unproductive communication tool for many of our Educational Service District’s client schools. Attempts to eliminate or reduce the volume of unwanted eMail suffered from unintended consequences, escalating costs, and a negative impact on information technology (IT) staff. Users were frustrated with losing legitimate eMail, and the increasing volume of spam overwhelmed our defenses. IT staff were frustrated by the seemingly endless efforts required to battle unwanted eMail. This all changed with our recent implementation of a new solution that balances the communication needs of users with the control needs of IT personnel.

There are nine Educational Service Districts in the state of Washington. Our district, ESD 101, is the largest, providing services to 59 public school districts, 47 state-approved private schools, and more than 96,000 K-12 students in 230 individual schools. ESD 101 also produces instructional satellite and cable programming for audiences around the nation.

As the director of the IT group providing network management support to these school districts, I had been seeing a rapid increase in spam activity, the problems associated with it, and the resulting increase in technology staff time to fight the problem. I realized we needed an easier solution to deploy, more scalable than our current model, or our staff would never be able to keep up.

Updating rules and spam definitions plagues IT staff

ESD 101’s eMail environment included a rules-based eMail filtering package, running on a Windows 2000 server, that also blocked eMail from unwanted domains by referencing a standard real-time blacklist (RBL) identifying known spamming sites. These lists were maintained by hand and were very difficult to keep current, and the filter rules required constant attention. This eMail environment worked; however, it was increasingly difficult to manage, and because our existing system depended entirely on a small, in-house IT staff, it was becoming a significant cost issue and a problem rather than a working solution.

Our rules-based system required constant updating, and each update created a series of unwanted user effects that would ripple through the IT staff. These efforts were driven by user demands and communication requirements: Each user’s definition of spam, or what was wanted or unwanted eMail, was different. Our eMail server, FirstClass, doesn’t conveniently support client tools, and I didn’t want the huge IT staff burden of supporting another application on users’ desktops.

Our goals were to:

  • Reduce infrastructure complexity and give users the ability to maintain their inbox environment without involving IT resources;
  • Deploy a system to apply and enforce global organizational policies, while allowing the details to be managed by users;
  • Allow users to decide what is spam and what is wanted eMail within the boundaries of our global organizational policies;
  • Eliminate false positives caused by our current filter;
  • Deploy to users in a transparent manner and implement on a department basis; and
  • Increase the robustness and reliability of our eMail infrastructure, especially protecting against the harvesting of addresses by spammers, attempts to bypass our eMail defenses, and volume eMail attacks caused by worms and viruses such as MyDoom and Netsky.

Users and IT staff finally find relief

The AP Intelligent Mail Switch with InboxMaster (known as InboxMaster to our users), from Secluda Technologies of Merrimack, N.H., was introduced to us by Bruce Nelson of the educational consulting firm MarketingWorks. It’s a Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP)-based gateway that allows individual user and domain protection to be turned “off” or “on.”

We piloted the software for four weeks, first letting eMail flow through the system with no user protection turned on. Although we turned the user protection off for the first two weeks, InboxMaster was still learning by observing each user’s eMail activity.

We introduced InboxMaster to users with a short eMail explanation. Upon deployment, users responded positively to the interface and had a working understanding of InboxMaster within minutes. The feedback has been 100-percent positive. The most surprising result involved those users who previously had received tremendous amounts of spam; they rediscovered eMail as a time-saving tool rather than the burden it had become.

New application offers simplicity and efficiency

InboxMaster responded well to the many different eMail servers and installations at our districts. It offers built-in non-delivery report attack prevention by verifying valid eMail addresses on the mail server, complete integration with Active Directory, and POP3 services that we found effective and easy to use. We have tested deployment on both the Windows 2000 platform and multiple distributions of Linux. The software runs very well and is easily backed up to preserve user preferences.

To me, the most important features of InboxMaster are its simplicity, short user learning curve, and ease of deployment. For example, we were receiving large quantities of spam from public eMail systems–systems used by many of our clients. Our old filtering system would allow us to block mail from an entire domain, and even exempt certain users who needed mail from one of these domains–but these users then would receive all of the spam along with the infrequent valid message. This upset users, tied up system resources, and resulted in more use of IT staff time. With InboxMaster, we can block a domain while allowing users to trust specific addresses within this domain, simply by sending an eMail message to the people they want to communicate with. Even if the entire domain is blocked by the user, mail from certain people within the domain is permitted on an individual basis.

Because we were able to deploy InboxMaster in a fully transparent mode, allowing the system to “learn” who each user communicates with, the system allowed mail to be received from those trusted individuals without any of the spam as soon as we activated users’ accounts. If a message is detained for any reason, the user can, among many other options, send an eMail to the person who sent the “suspicious” message–and all future mail from this person will be delivered to the user’s inbox. Neat, very simple, and the users picked it up immediately.

A couple of very nice side benefits included:

  • Automatic user account creation;
  • A “safe” place for users to view messages in a text-only format, so the threat of virus infection is reduced by eliminating all of the unwanted mail from delivery to the user’s inbox; and
  • Reduction of backup storage requirements for our mail systems, because the junk isn’t getting through.

Using InboxMaster’s ability to assign users to manage other mail boxes, we can address school issues concerning students’ eMail accounts. A teacher now can fully manage the eMail a child sees. Districts can better comply with Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) regulations by blocking web sites while still allowing for valid eMail access.

Impressively, to go along with the product’s extensive functionality and ease of use, the support provided during our initial deployment has been outstanding. I appreciated Secluda’s willingness to work with us to provide our school districts with a high-quality product at an affordable price. By running on Windows, Linux, Solaris, and Mac OS X, Secluda has made InboxMaster extremely easy to deploy in our mixed environment.

Spam is history at ESD 101.

Links:

Educational Service District 101
http://www.esd101.net

Secluda Technologies
http://www.secluda.com

Dalton Bly is the director of information technology for Educational Service District 101 in Spokane, Wash. He oversees a staff that designs and supports more than 50 school district networks in eastern Washington state, as well as the state’s K-20 data and video network.