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Dawn of a spam killer

Dawn of a spam killer

Improved masculine stamina. Fun with farm animals. Sexy schoolgirls. It's all there waiting for us in our email every morning. One of the newest players in the antispam field is San Mateo-based startup Deersoft

Can't miss money makers. Improved masculine stamina. Fun with farm animals. Sexy schoolgirls. It's all there waiting for us in our e-mail every morning. Beyond being time-consuming to sort through and delete, those unwanted messages can also be downright offensive, creating an HR nightmare that has many IT departments looking for some relief. One of the newest players in the antispam field is San Mateo, Calif.-based startup Deersoft Inc. The company's products are based on an open-source antispam software project called SpamAssassin (www.spamassassin.org), which was started in 2001 by Irish programmer Justin Mason. Not long after, Craig Hughes, CTO and cofounder of Deersoft, began working with Mason to enhance the software. That initial work led to a round of funding from venture capitalist Gordon Kruberg, and Deersoft was born.

Deersoft took the open-source product (which Hughes still maintains) and turned it into a more slick, packaged tool that could appeal to a wider audience--and be sold at a profit. The results are SpamAssassin Pro and SpamAssassin Enterprise.

SpamAssassin Pro--the company's first product--sits inside a desktop client (currently Microsoft Outlook, but soon to also be Outlook Express) and monitors every piece of incoming mail for off-color content and other telltale signs of spam. Users can tweak the included rules and automatically import their address books to help keep the number of false positives to a minimum. Deersoft also uses its own staff and a worldwide network of spam reporting volunteers to create more rules as spammers get increasingly sophisticated.

SpamAssassin Enterprise looks to keep the spam from ever reaching the users' desks. It lives on a Microsoft Exchange server and acts as a blockade against spam at the corporate perimeter. Unlike some other enterprise spam-fighting tools, however, SpamAssassin Enterprise gives users--not just IT managers--access to the reserved spam box so that they can check for any missing nonspam mail. Plus users can tweak personal rules to tailor the product for their own needs beyond what the enterprise may already be doing.

Even so, Deersoft faces challenges, says Joyce Graff, vice president and senior analyst at Gartner Inc. The company, for instance, doesn't have a dedicated staff working 24/7 to create the profiles that it uses to stop spam, unlike some competitors such as Brightmail Inc. That lack, Graff says, can make spam filtering someone's full-time job--a task most IT departments would rather avoid.

Deersoft's current customers seem willing to make the trade-off, however. Jeff Arndt, systems administrator at aerospace analysis and visualization tools vendor Analytical Graphics, was looking for an alternative to Trend Micro Inc.'s ScanMail eManager, which he felt lacked flexibility, when he discovered SpamAssassin--and he remains happy with the choice. He's primarily pleased with the fact that SpamAssassin allows end users to examine their own spam mailboxes and to create their own rules. "It lets people deal with their own spam," he says. Before SpamAssassin, users were required to send junk mail to an administrative mailbox so that IT could deal with the problem.

That flexibility is also key for Vicki Prugh, a senior software developer at chemical industry consultant SRI Consulting. Prugh's users were getting buried in offensive spam. "People were getting physically and emotionally upset," she says. But those same users--many of them analysts--needed to be sure that important e-mail got through to them. "With SpamAssassin, individuals can say, Let this go, it's OK," Prugh notes.

Good tools alone won't guarantee success in this spam space, however. And Deersoft is a tiny company that faces stiff competition both from software vendors such as Trend Micro and SurfControl PLC as well as services from the likes of Brightmail, MessageLabs Ltd. and Postini Inc.

But one thing is certain--you can never have too many competitors in the battle against spam.

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