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Viruses to crash New Year's bash

Remedies include shutting down e-mail systems.

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E-mail managers are bracing for a blizzard of sorts during New Year's weekend, when the number of viruses and pesky electronic greeting cards is expected to reach an all-time high.

The biggest concern for e-mail managers is viruses hidden in attachments. More than 30,000 threats of new Y2K viruses have been logged by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, according to Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn., research firm. Gartner analysts predict most of these threats will amount to nothing. But they say that if only five or 10 viruses are released at the same time, that would overwhelm the ability of companies to produce fixes and could cause substantial productivity losses. The Y2K virus threat is "a clear and present danger," Gartner says.

In response to these threats, companies are taking drastic measures, ranging from putting all e-mail attachments in quarantine to shutting down e-mail systems altogether.

Electronic greeting cards are a worry because they are prime candidates for carrying viruses. The greetings also can cripple e-mail servers because they are so large - up to 5M bytes - and can be broadcast around a network.

"There is competition among the people who write viruses to create special mischief around New Year's Eve," says analyst David Ferris of Ferris Research in San Francisco. "We think it's a good idea for companies to shut down their e-mail systems for about a 24-hour period. But they also need to have contingency plans for a period afterward so they can fix their systems in the case of time bombs sent earlier."

Following this advice, some companies are shutting down their e-mail systems for several days over the holiday period.

"One of our clients, a huge insurance company, is closing down its e-mail system between Christmas and New Year's Day," says Susan Majerus, spokeswoman for Content Technologies of Kirkland, Wash., which sells MAILsweeper e-mail filtering software. "We've made that recommendation to other companies as well."

A major pharmaceutical company that uses e-mail management software from Tally Systems in Hanover, N.H., is cutting off external e-mail from two days before New Year's until two days after, says Randy Britton, Tally's communications manager. "They're not alone," Britton says. "We've heard this from a couple of large companies."

Others are restricting e-mail usage during New Year's weekend to critical communications only. For example, DuPont is limiting use of its Lotus Notes system to people who need it to test systems for Y2K compliance or to communicate the status of systems, says Senior Vice President Cinda Hallman.

One company that will keep its e-mail system up and running over New Year's weekend is the Salt River Project (SRP), an electric utility in Phoenix.

However, SRP will quarantine e-mail with attachments for several days until the messages can be run through virus software that has been updated to reflect Y2K-related viruses, says Joe McKee, a principal electrical engineer. SRP has 3,500 e-mail users in Arizona.

"Only critical support people will be able to send e-mail with attachments during that period," McKee says, adding that the company has never before taken these kinds of precautions.

SRP runs Microsoft Exchange as its e-mail system for PC users and Sendmail for its Unix workstation users. SRP uses WorldSecure/ Mail from Worldtalk to filter e-mail that comes from the Internet, and it will use this server software package to enact its quarantine policy. SRP uses its firewall to restrict the size of e-mail attachments to less than 5M bytes.

Thomson Financial of Boston will increase its e-mail monitoring during New Year's weekend but hopes to keep its Microsoft Exchange system running for its 8,000 employees worldwide. Thomson uses WorldSecure/Mail for virus and content scanning and Tally Systems' Mail Check for performance monitoring.

"We have the go-ahead to delay e-mail until off hours, so we don't have to worry about it while we're going through the date change," says Senior Messaging Analyst Mike Green. "Anything with an attachment can be quarantined if we have to. . . . And we are developing a shut-down contingency plan."

Green is updating the company's e-mail deferment policy for the holidays and says his top priority is preventing virus outbreaks. "With the tools we have, we should be in pretty good shape for Y2K," he adds.

E-mail managers also need to be concerned about an inadvertent threat from employees who send New Year's greetings to each other and to friends outside the company, thereby tying up the corporate network while critical Y2K-related testing occurs.

"Another concern for messaging managers is that employees will be doing their own testing. They'll be sending messages all over the place just to see if the system works," says Joanne Egner, a product manager with Tally Systems. "E-mail managers would like to keep volume at a minimum while they're doing their own internal testing of the system."

Egner recommends that organizations establish special rules for e-mail usage over New Year's weekend.

Companies that want to increase oversight of their e-mail traffic during New Year's weekend can take advantage of special discounts offered by vendors of e-mail filtering products and services.

"This is a major threat to corporate America," says Richard Bliss, vice president of marketing at Allegro, an e-mail scanning service provider in a Dayton, Ohio. "Those who don't know about it are going to get hammered."

Allegro is offering new customers one free month of its e-mail filtering service, which normally costs $1 per user, per month. Allegro intercepts an organization's e-mail from the Internet, scans it for viruses, eliminates large attachments and then sends the e-mail on to the organization.

Worldtalk of Santa Clara is offering a free 90-day trial of WorldSecure/Mail filtering software this month. Dubbed MailScrooge, this special offer includes default policies designed for the holidays, including the ability to block greeting cards and viruses.

With MailScrooge, e-mail managers can scan incoming messages for certain types of files and can quarantine or block those files.

Content Technologies always offers a 30-day free download of its e-mail content filtering software, MAILsweeper 4.0.

"We're expecting an influx of customers over the next 30 days due to the fact that Y2K is coming," Content's Majerus says.

Unhappy holidays for net professionals

Deck: From viruses, to bloated e-mail attachments, to Y2K issues, e-mail administrators have a lot to say "bah humbug" about during this year's holiday season.

Average electronic greeting card size so far this season:

1999    3.5M bytes
1998    1.1M bytes
1997    300K bytes 

Top greeting cards this year:

Name         Size
Snowcraft    3.5M bytes
Elfbolw.exe  1.5M bytes
Xmas.exe     1.1M bytes 

Major viruses and when they are expected to strike:

New Years Day, 2000
Chinese Fish
Jan. 3, 2000
Jan. 4, 2000
Descriptions of Y2K viruses
From McAfee.

Sources: Allegro, Dayton, Ohio; McAfee, Santa Clara, Calif.


Contact Senior Editor Carolyn Duffy Marsan

Other recent articles by Marsan

Descriptions of Y2K viruses
From McAfee.

Download MailScrooge
From Worldtalk.

Y2K Module
Content Technologies overview of its Y2K module for MAILsweeper.

More on Allegro's plans
From Allegro.

Y2K predictions
We asked our team of Network World columnists for their fearless Y2K bug predictions. Here are their responses. Network World, 12/6/99.

Y2K? That's the least of their net concerns
Dec. 31 may be looming large for many businesses - but for others, the Y2K problem is shaping up to be a paper tiger. Network World, 12/6/99.

Vendors warn of destructive Y2K virus
Computer Associates and Symantec issued warnings about a destructive new virus that disguises itself as a year 2000 computer problem, and besides reformatting user hard drives, changes Internet Explorer home pages to an adult-content site. Network World Fusion, 12/3/99.

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