You've got spam ... or a virus

8:36:51 AM CDT - Thursday, May 13, 2004

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

With the increase in spam e-mail and viruses, University Computing and Telecommunication Services is testing a spam filter and has started a new virus alert system.

Since mid-April, UCATS has been testing a spam filter offered by the same company that provides the two e-mail programs used by faculty/staff and students.

The cost of such a filter, which can amount to $50,000 annually, and a lack of personnel to administer increasing services have prevented UCATS from rolling out a filter previously, says Mike Erickson, assistant director and manager of technical services and operations for University Computing.

"We tried to do something about spam for over a year, but there's been funding issues," Erickson says. "The cost of a supported, quality spam filter is a significant ongoing commitment."

If WSU decides to purchase the license for the filter currently being tested , it will get a significant discount because it uses the company's e-mail products. The product being tested would cost less than $20,000.

"Part of what we're testing is how people can manage it," says Erickson. "With everything that we do, we try to find out the answers to the questions we might get before we roll out the new product." UCATS is using fake e-mail accounts to see how the filter responds to spam.

Erickson is unsure how long the filter will be tested, noting that the person responsible for learning how the filter works is also responsible for administering the Lotus Notes accounts and all Windows 2003 servers, trouble-shooting all wichita.edu accounts, and learning about the new listserv product the university recently purchased.

"Even without the spam filter we try to do a number of things to prevent it," Erickson says. "We already block those with known viruses or spam just through some built-in configurations of the e-mail server. Even though it doesn't seem like it, we have taken what steps we could with the software we have and the resources we have. It could be far worse."

Erickson himself realizes the frustration of spam. After he went on a four-day vacation recently, he returned to an e-mail inbox of 400 messages. About half were spam.

WSU's e-mail server handles more than 75,000 messages daily. There are about 30,000 WSU e-mail accounts.

Some spam is caused by worms that infect a computer on WSU's network.

"We're trying to fight the battle on the spam front on the server level, but we're fighting a battle on another front in trying to keep desktops and other servers from being infected," Erickson says.
To help make network users aware of virus threats, UCATS has developed a broadcast e-mail alert system. The system, called the Virus Alert and Network Notification System (VANNS), will also be used to communicate pending network activity, such as an Internet pipeline being down, according to Steve Dickerson, UCATS assistant director and manager of user services.

WSU e-mail users received the first such alert on May 4, warning them of the Sasser virus. The sender of the message will always appear as vanns.alertservice and the subject will include the acronyms WSU/UCATS. Users can verify the legitimacy of the messages at www.wichita.edu/userservices/vanns.

As manager of user services, Dickerson gets virus alerts from antivirus companies daily, warning about possible threats.

"About two years ago we used to get one a week," Dickerson says. "Now we get about two a day. We really have to keep up and determine what will be vulnerable to Wichita State and take some sort of action."

UCATS also places information on possible viruses online at www.wichita.edu/userservicesunder Quick News.

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