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What's new at the Firewall
Utilities search for ways to combat viruses and spam.
If you had to pick a couple of technologies that modern utilities can't function without, e-mail would have to top the list. Yet it usually doesn't grab the attention of executives these days nearly so much as outage management or SCADA systems.
The coming year may change that, as problems from spam and viruses reach near-epidemic proportions.
E-mail, and viruses, and spam-oh my!
More Than a Mere Nuisance
Until the past year or so, when utilities worried about e-mail security, they focused on viruses and "worms," but not "spam." Like many other business sectors, utilities took quite a hit a few years ago from virulent viruses like I LUV U, Melissa, and Nimda. At Ameren, for example, 800 hours of technical staff time was devoted to the recovery from I LUV U alone, says Mike Knott, Ameren's supervisor of network operations.
Since then, Ameren has become more sophisticated in dealing with virus threats, and in the past year installed a gateway-based software package to combat the problem. That software, from Trend Mirco, an anti-virus and content protection software company, has "virtually eliminated e-mail borne viruses," Knott says.
While Ameren has solved, at least for the moment, problems with e-mail borne viruses and worms, Knott says "the real issue on our e-mail system now tends to be spam." Currently, he is trying to assess just how big a problem spam is for Ameren, and in particular whether it's underreported within the company.
Spam-those wonderful e-mails that promise instant riches, thinness, bedroom prowess, and a supply of just about any narcotic you'd care to consume-used to be regarded as just a nuisance. The most common advice for dealing with the problem was for users to set up a few filters on their desktop e-mail program, or client, and to be liberal in their use of the delete key. Utilities would also install spam filters on their e-mail servers, which sometimes helped keep the company spam load at a manageable level but also filtered out some legitimate e-mails (aka false positives).
In the last year or so, however, the spammers have struck back. For every improvement in filter technology, there's a countermove. And the sheer volume of spam is overwhelming the available bandwidth at many businesses. In a joint study conducted in August and September by Tech Republic, an online CNET publication, and Trend Micro, over half of the respondents said their spam load had jumped 25 to 100 percent in the three months prior to the survey. That increased spam load means somewhere between 40 and 80 percent of an average utility's bandwidth is taken up by spam traffic, depending on which expert you ask.
As every chief information officer knows, bandwidth is not cheap. And all those unwanted e-mails also take space on servers, which translates into increased storage costs, if not the need to buy entirely new servers just to handle the load.
Yet the cost of extra bandwidth and storage isn't the only cost of spam to a utility. The largest component