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Deep Sky Tech. Services Newsletter (SNL) #3

released April 8, 2003

This issue of the SNL covers, almost completely, issues related to spam. It is important that all customers read through this issue, like all previous and future issues of SNL, completely. There is a new service available now as it relates to spam blocking accessible by all customers and users that have email accounts within Deep Sky Tech. This issue of SNL covers the background of spam blocking techniques, the new service now available, and what else will be coming to our spam blocking systems and services.


Table of Contents


Q2 Invoices

Invoices for Q2 2003 have yet to be posted as of the release of this issue of SNL. The extensive amount of time and effort we have been putting into some of the other services we offer at Deep Sky Tech. has again necessitated the delay in posting invoices.

But, no such luck, it will not be nearly as severe as Q1 invoices.

Invoices should be posted within the next 48 hours for all accounts. As usual, you will receive your normal email notification of the availability of your invoices within the Billing section of the SAME interface.

Note, too, that many of you will now be seeing the price reduction we have made in domain renewals. As mentioned in SNL #1, domain registrations and renewals have been reduced to $25 as of the beginning of the year. Customers with domains renewed during this last billing period will see this savings on their Q2 2003 invoices.

Now, don't spend all of the savings in one sitting. Consider sending Marshmallow Peeps:

http://www.deepskytech.com/prod_components/bash/pricing.html


A Look at Common Spam Blocking Techniques - Part 1

The blocking, or filtering, of unsolicited bulk email has recently become a very popular topic. This is true not just among individual users trying to deal with the volume of spam in their email accounts. It is also true that the blocking of spam has become a very popular topic among network and email server administrators.

The issue has become one of such serious consideration that even the Internet Engineering Task Force, the IETF, has formed a research group to begin addressing the problem. The IETF is the governing body of engineers, researchers, and computer scientists that help determine the standards for how the internet actually works. You can learn more about the IETF at:

http://www.ietf.org/

During the second half of March 2003, just a couple of weeks ago, the Anti-Spam Research Group (ASRG) met for the first time at the latest IETF proceedings in San Francisco, CA. Many of the existing systems used to block spam were discussed and reviewed, including the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each. As well, there was some discussion of the impact spam has on individuals, companies, and resources online. The numbers, especially the continuing explosive growth of spam attempts, is a serious issue that must be addressed.

The problem is large enough that there is a serious possibility that spam will be overloading large numbers of systems throughout the internet in the coming years. Growth at this time of spam traffic online is currently at the rate of approximately 20% to 40% per month; this translates into an average yearly growth of an order of magnitude. On a daily basis, growth of .5% to 1.5% is about average.

At Deep Sky Tech., we have been tracking our spam related traffic for approximately 9 months now. In comparing the statistics we are seeing with the number above, we are seeing numbers that fall right in line with the numbers presented at the recent ASRG meeting. In comparing these numbers with many other hosting companies that also track this information, we are actually finding that Deep Sky Tech. is not even being hit too hard comparatively with spam related traffic.

The worst part of it is that growth is not steady, either. The rate of growth continues to increase over time. Meaning, seeing a growth rate currently of, for instance, 20% per month may very well be a growth rate of 40% in the next 6 to 12 months.

And, with the nature of spam, this is not a result of anything, for instance, that Deep Sky Tech. is doing wrong or any deficiency in our current tools or systems. This is purely traffic into our private network that originates from sources online that are either not secure, not forthcoming, not legitimate, or not well managed.

Most current spam blocking systems rely on basically the filtering of email by examining the content of the email. This can be as simple as not allowing email that is listed as coming from a certain domain or email addresses, to filtering based on the presence of particular pre-determined words or strings of characters. Some email filtering systems have evolved to the point of using much more intelligent ranking algorithms for determining whether a particular email is to be considered spam or not. Many of these advanced filtering systems will even modify their own filter rankings based on feedback from the user operating the filtering program. The new Mail program from Apple Computers, Inc., is a good example of such a system being built directly into email client software.

The problem with content filtering of any kind is the ability of the sender of email to change any and all content of the email. There is no requirement that email being sent actually contain a real From address, or reference a real domain online, or anything else that can be held as legitimate. It is a simple matter for anyone in the world to actually send email that has your very own name, email address, etc., as the From information in the email. This means that as fast as a filtering system based on content can learn new rules to block spam, the senders of spam can adapt the content of what is sent to circumvent the filtering algorithms. This makes such an approach a never ending battle between spammers and filtering systems. And, it does not in any way address the root problem of resource usage of the networks used to transport the spam traffic.

There is only one piece of information about an email that can not be faked. This one piece of information is the IP address of the remote sending computer (the IP address is a unique number, an address, assigned to computers and devices on the internet). This often is the IP address of a remote email server used to send, or relay, email from people to the receiving email server.

Consider, in the most simplistic form, when someone actually sends email to someone, there is commonly two different email servers involved in the delivery of the email. One email server is the SMTP server (the sending server) used by the sender of the email. The email being sent is delivered to this SMTP server for handling and (hopefully) transmission to another email server. Once this SMTP server receives an email it must deliver, it determines what email server on the internet the email should be delivered to reach its destination. Then, this remote email server, the senders SMTP server, delivers the email to the recipients email server. The next time the recipient connects to their email server, their POP3 server, they can retrieve the email message that is waiting for them.

Knowing the basic functionality of delivering email on the internet, and knowing that the content of email can be set to absolutely anything by the original sender, there are certain challenges that are posed. For instance, for there to be actual filtering or blocking of email on the receiving email server, it must be based only on the real information that it receives. The only piece of real information that is involved in this whole process is the IP address of the remote server that has connected and is trying to deliver the email to it.

From the perspective of the receiving server, though, blocking email based solely on the IP address of the remote connecting system poses particular problems. None of these problems are insurmountable, but it does require additional service options to handle the possibilities properly.

(Part 2, available in the next SNL, will continue on this topic)

UITB: New Service for All Customers

The UITB spam blocking systems, as mentioned in the last SNL, has one serious limitation. As you already know, this limitation is based on the fact that the UITB system bases its filtering criteria purely on the IP address of the connecting computer (email server) that is delivering the email into Deep Sky Tech.

Since it is possible for legitimate users to be using an email server to deliver their email that we had previously identified as an email server known for sending spam, it is possible for legitimate email to be blocked by the UITB systems. This has been a known problem with the system at Deep Sky Tech. and we have been working hard to provide a solution to you.

The solution to this problem involves a very unique feature of email delivery that we can exploit for both the needs of Deep Sky Tech. and your email delivery needs. The easiest explanation, as odd as this sounds, is for the email to be blocked by the UITB system and to have it actually keep a copy of what is blocked. This archived copy of email that is blocked is complete and then be used to its best purposes.

This archiving of blocked email was actually enabled at Deep Sky Tech. on March 9th, 2003. We felt the issue was important enough that this archive functionality be enabled as soon as possible even if there was no way to utilize or access the information in the archive. This way, the archive would be enabled as soon as possible while an interface for accessing the contents of the archive was developed and implemented.

The interface to the UITB blocked spam archive has now been completed (well, enough to call it a first release). It actually became active on April 3rd, 2003, and was linked into our web site as of April 4th, 2003, for use by all of our customers.

To access this archive, go to our web site at:

http://www.deepskytech.com

From any page on our web site, there is now a new main navigation link available at the top of the page next to the Deep Sky Tech. logo. This link is entitled 'UITB'. Clicking on this link allows you to access the UITB blocked spam archive. Following the 'Login' link provides a way for you to check all of the blocked spam for any email address hosted at Deep Sky Tech. (you must provide the password for the email account to access the archive for that email address).

Within these pages (there are only a couple), there is a complete explanation of what can be done and what each option provides for you. The goal of the interface is to make it as simple and efficient as possible for you and all of your users to navigate and work with.

Within this interface, you have a listing of all of the blocked email that was addressed to the email address you came in under. You can click on the subject of the email to view the full contents of any individual email. And, you have a very simple interface to indicate for each email whether it is spam or not spam. Changes made to whether an email is spam or not must be sent back to our servers by clicking on the 'Update' button either above or below the listing of emails.

Once an email has been marked as either spam or not spam, it will no longer be shown in the list. Those that are marked as not being spam will be sent along to your email account exactly as if you had received them without the UITB system having done any blocking.

Under the 'Preferences' link in the interface is a single setting that you can make. This setting is basically the frequency that the email address will be notified of new blocked spam that is available in the UITB blocked spam archive. This frequency can be set to hourly, daily, or weekly for each individual email address.

Though this preference can be set now, the functionality of the notifications will not be enabled until Friday, April 11th, 2003. This gives you, as the administrator of your domains and users, the time to familiarize yourself with the interface and its functionality. Once the notifications have been enabled on Friday, they will be sent out regularly to every email address. This means you have the time to notify your users that have email addresses within the Deep Sky Tech. hosting services of this new functionality and service.

Updates to this interface, including the addition of new functionality, will be posted on the main Overview page in the interface. Watch the last updated line at the top of the Overview page for details on new features and functionality as it becomes available in this interface.

And, as always, give us your feedback on this new service. We are confident that it will alleviate many of the problems and frustrations that exist with spam. We are always interested in hearing your feedback on these issues and learning how we can serve you better.


What's Coming for UITB?

The addition of the UITB blocked spam archive is a major step forward for the spam blocking efforts at Deep Sky Tech. There should be no more issues of email not being received by our customers as even senders that use SMTP servers that we have identified as sources of spam can have the information accessible.

There are some particular additions to the interface that still need to be made available. This includes the ability to manage multiple email accounts within a single interface, manage forwarded email accounts directly, managing alias domains' email accounts directly, and some particular administrative tools for both Deep Sky Tech. personnel and customer administrators. These should be fleshed out in the UTIB blocked spam archive interface in the coming weeks.

One important piece of functionality though is the ability for the system to 'learn' from users. Right now, the spam blocking list in the UITB system is a single list that all domains hosted within Deep Sky Tech. utilize. It would be much better for each domain to have the ability to customize what is and is not blocked separately. And, consider, the knowledge for feeding such a system is already being entered in the existing UITB blocked spam archive interface every time a user indicates whether an email is or is not spam.

The plans at Deep Sky Tech. are to provide this functionality, this 'domain specific' block lists. Development is already well underway to this end. Current estimates are to have this available within 4 to 6 weeks (sometime in May, 2003). It will be completely transparent to all users once enabled, too.

The current UITB blocked spam archive is storing the settings made by each user for whether email is or is not spam. Once the domain specific block lists are available, we will be "seeding" it with all of this "knowledge" at the very beginning. And, of course, new choices made in the UITB blocked spam archive will directly affect the block lists then of the user's domain hosted at Deep Sky Tech.

We are very happy at Deep Sky Tech. to have gotten this far in the development of these systems. The archive interface we are certain will please a great many of our customers. And, actually being this close to then having a dynamically learning spam blocking system for our customers is very exciting (I guess that does make us computer geeks).

The next issue of the SNL should contain specific details and launch dates for this next major functional addition to the UITB.com systems.


Cheers!

Well, that looks like it is enough for this issue.

I know there is a lot of information packed into this issue. But, please take the time to read through it all. It is information worth knowing and it should not take more than maybe 5 or 10 minutes of your time.

As always, if you have any questions about any of these items, feel free to contact us at your earliest convenience.

Cheers!

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