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Spam technology seeks acceptance

By , Network World
July 28, 2003 12:03 AM ET

Network World - A proposed standard filtering technology originally developed to help end users organize messages in overstuffed in-boxes instead is gaining favor as a niche tool to help in the effort to stem the onslaught of spam.

Sieve, which became a proposed Internet Engineering Task Force Standard in January 2001, is a scripting language designed to let end users write e-mail filters, such as automatically sorting incoming mail into folders based on a sender's address.

Since the Sieve proposal however, the complexity of scripting and lack of support in standard clients has conspired to keep adoption low.

But dramatic changes in the messaging landscape, most notably spam, now appear to be casting Sieve in a new light.

With the spam explosion, companies have taken mail-filtering chores from the desktop to the IT level and deployed gateways or firewalls in an attempt to stem the blitz. For vendors, such as Vircom, Brightmail, ActiveState and Rockliffe, Sieve has become a tool that lets customers write customized filters for their spam engines and even share scripts.

It could be a new life for Sieve because end-user adoption also has been stymied by the fact that in-box filtering is mostly a power-user endeavor. Also, Microsoft Outlook, which has its own filtering technology and does not support Sieve, is now the default client for Microsoft's Exchange Server and IBM/Lotus Domino, which together account for more than 200 million e-mail seats. In addition, neither messaging server supports Sieve, which can be implemented on a server or a client.

Sieve, which at its heart is a scripting language, has never had an easy-to-use GUI for end users with little knowledge of high technology.

"E-mail overload has not been the result of receiving too much legitimate e-mail. It has been because of spam," says Tim Showalter, the author of Sieve and a member of the technical staff at Mirapoint. "So filtering is now happening at the corporate gateway and not the desktop for spam, anti-virus and content. That is more interesting to customers now." Showalter's own employer, Mirapoint, does not incorporate Sieve into its products.

Regardless, Showalter says Sieve is a success and a useable specification in its current form. Showalter still is working actively on extensions, including one that will let users set up out-of-office auto-replies when away on vacation.

He also says Sieve remains a good partner for e-mail servers based on Internet Message Access Protocol, which store messages on the server where Sieve scripts can be executed for users who access mail from multiple clients.

Showalter says Sieve wasn't designed to solve the deluge of spam, which was only a trickle when he wrote the standard in the late-1990s. But some vendors have modified Sieve for use with their anti-spam engines to the surprise of Showalter.

Secure messaging vendor Vircom has enhanced the Sieve language and made it the foundation of its ModusSieve anti-spam engine, which it markets to ISPs and some corporations. Over the past year, the company says it has developed 13,000 lines of Sieve scripts, which are updated around the clock and augmented by scripts from Vircom customers who have formed the Vircom Anti-Spam Coalition.

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