Fighting the Ugly Spam Monster

What is SPAM?

Over 60 million Americans and countless others in the world (whether they admit it or not) eat SPAM-a tasty luncheon meat made of chopped pork and ham, salt, water, sugar and sodium nitrate.

The term ‘spam’ has other usages. In the world of computing, to spam is an attempt to flood the Internet with copies of the same message in an effort to force mail upon people who would otherwise not choose to receive it.

Spam is basically unsolicited E-mail, cyberspace’s equivalent to junk mail. The messages are usually misleading or completely inappropriate, and they come in massive bulk quantities. If you have a Hotmail or Yahoo E-mail account, you’ve likely been exposed to a fair amount of spam.

So what does a luncheon meat that comes in a can have to do with web hosting?

Nothing! But spam in the form of unsolicited E-mail is a major issue for the web hosting industry.

Why is spam bad?

Spam is a major irritant. It is unwanted, annoying and almost universally hated.

Spam costs you money. Receiving unsolicited junk E-mail requires connect time to view and discard. Time that hosting subscribers have to pay for and the spammer does not. The same principle applies to storage space. Spam needlessly takes up space in your inbox, another service that costs money.

Spam is guilty of clogging mail queues and increasing overall Internet traffic, making local networks more congested. Spam causes delays for all Internet users because spammers commonly use mailing lists with many outdated E-mail addresses. E-mail that is bounced is a waste of bandwidth as is any large quantity of unnecessary traffic–which spam invariably is.

According to Industry Analyst, Paul Nichols, connect time and toll charges, storage costs, and lost productivity all contribute to everyone’s “spam tax.” The cost has been estimated at over $9 billion worldwide annually!

Spammers are crooks. They steal mailing lists, ignore ‘unsubscribe’ requests and evade responsibility by leaving fake return E-mail addresses. They violate all commonly accepted conventions of ‘netiquette.’

Hosting and spam

A critical issue facing hosting companies is security. Companies must protect the physical infrastructure of hosting, control incoming traffic, maintain data integrity and manage overall network security.

A major component of network security is sorting through incoming traffic and filtering out undesirable (spam) and other potentially harmful (viruses) contents.

Network security threats commonly emanate from cyberspace where hackers dedicated to causing havoc can break into computer systems and unleash harmful viruses. E-mail has rapidly become the most popular medium for virus transmission, making it a double-edged sword. Not only can viruses penetrate and wreak havoc, spam can inundate systems with high levels of unwarranted traffic, bringing network speed down to less than optimal levels.

In a hosting environment, these possibilities pose as a security concern and a potential danger to the sensitive files/data that are critical to the hosting of web sites.

Modwest and dealing with the spam problem

Hidden out near the Rockies, Modwest is a young, rapidly growing hosting company that is up in arms against the proliferation of spam.

According to Vice-President of Business Development and co-founder John Masterson, “about 20-25 percent of all the mail that our mail servers handle is unsolicited commercial E-mail-its spam-so with that level of unwarranted traffic, it was something that we felt had real importance to deal with.”

Filtering spam was a natural extension to the work Modwest has been doing with virus filtering.

Explains Masterson, “we decided to move forward with spam filtering because we had a number of customers ask us for virus filtering…the spam filter was a natural add-on.” Both services are provided free of charge to all of Modwest’s shared hosting customers.

The software Modwest uses to filter spam runs on its mail servers, detecting unwanted mail before it enters their system. Masterson explains: “the software applies a sophisticated rule set of hundreds of different patterns and characteristics of individual pieces of E-mail. Each rule that is applied can add or subtract a point value. If the E-mail exceeds a certain threshold of points, it can be flagged as spam.”

Hundreds of common spam indicators are programmed into the filter. Keywords such as ‘MORTAGE RATES,’ ‘Viagra,’ and ‘click to unsubscribe’ are just a few.

As most people will tell you, spam filtering can be effective but never perfect. In Masterson’s words, “you just can’t have perfect spam filtering.”

To illustrate any system’s imperfections, Masterson raises the example of opt-in mail such as newsletters: “even though you specifically requested it, the computer is not going to be able to tell that it is different from a piece of spam.”

To combat this problem, Modwest hands control over to its hosting customers. “We felt it was important to provide a lot of flexibility and customer control because different users are going to have different needs,” says Masterson.

Through the use of a web-based control panel, Modwest lets customers calibrate filtering sensitivity to their own preferences and have mail deleted, flagged as spam or filtered directly to a disposal folder. Explains Masterson, “inside the Modwest control panel, our customers can specify how sensitive they want their spam filtering to be…they can either choose high, medium or low sensitivity, or they can specify a custom point value.”

The control panel has some innovative features that aid the filtering process. For example, the newsletter that you subscribe to can be ‘whitelisted (welcome in your inbox),’ as opposed to blacklisted (not welcome). If the address you’ve ‘whitelisted’ arrives in your inbox, it is not treated as spam as per your request. Besides general patterns and keywords, the filter also spots E-mail patterns such as multiple Cc’s with lots of similar usernames or domain names -a very reliable indicator of spam.

The overall security equation

Spam is a part of the overall security equation for hosting service providers. Modwest’s filtering services bolster its overall network performance while providing the convenience of reduced junk mail loads for its hosting customers-a customer base that spans from across North America to as far as Latin American and Europe.

As Modwest demonstrates, controlling the loads of spam that pervades the Internet will continue to be a win-win situation for hosting companies and their customers as they battle on in the war against spam abuse.

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