IronPort & the Future of the Email Platform
Update: This article now has an updated Frequently Asked Questions page that supersedes this announcement. You can find this latest information in our IronPort anti-spam migration FAQ Those of you who managed to catch the teaser posted by our Network Director Phil Webb a couple of days ago, will already be aware that we've got a lot in store for the Plusnet email platform over the coming months. One of the things we're really excited about is our newly found partnership with security experts IronPort, who's technology we'll be using to bring you some of the best spam and virus filtering the industry has to offer. Other improvements include the the long awaited replacement to our current Webmail platform, and a complete overhaul of both our inbound and outbound email platforms. What this post is intended to do then, is provide a detailed insight into some of these developments and explain what they'll mean to you as a customer. For the purpose of the post, and for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to split things into the following three areas:
- Spam Filtering & IronPort.
- Webmail & Roundcube.
- Platform Consolidation & Outbound Mail (IronPort).
It's important to note that we do have a *lot* planned, and it's not all going to be ready at once. Whilst the information regarding some of the projects in this post will be sparse, rest assured you'll hear plenty more as we approach the respective launch dates. The techies amongst you will find more detail about the network architecture surrounding some of these changes over on our Community Site Forums. Be warned though, it's not for the faint of heart! . Spam filtering & Ironport - Replacing Postini with Ironport. Since moving our email security platform to Postini last year, we've seen a dramatic improvement in performance when compared to the previous systems that we were using. Having said that, it hasn't all been smooth running and we have encountered a few problems along the way. Detection rates and false positives (emails marked as spam that shouldn't be) have been known to cause problems, and using Postini's web-based Quarantine system as a solution to this is not really ideal. In addition to this there have been a few instances, like the uk2.net issue back in August, where the time taken to resolve the problem fell far short of our expectations. Since the beginning of this year we've been trialling alternative spam solutions. One of these solutions is a suite of security appliances provided by a company called IronPort Systems. Ironport are owned by Cisco and are a leading provider of anti-spam, anti-virus and anti-spyware appliances for organizations ranging from small businesses to the Global 2000. Several months ago we concluded a trial of the IronPort appliances on our internal email platform. The trial showed IronPort's detection rate to be brilliant, and we saw near-zero false positives. More recently we've moved all staff-broadband email accounts to IronPort, as well as inviting a handful of volunteers from the Plusnet Usergroup to help us test the service and offer feedback. Ironport are really keen to work with us and we also like the look of their roadmap. Combined with the success of the trials, this makes them the perfect successors to Postini. So much so in fact, that over the coming weeks we'll be gradually migrating customers' anti-spam filtering across to the new IronPort platform. "What does this mean for me?" If you've made it this far then you're probably wondering what affect all of this is going to have on the service you receive from us? Well to start with, there's going to be very little change to the Manage My Mail interface. The same anti-spam controls will be available and you'll still be able to configure your mailboxes, aliases and redirects in exactly the same way that you do now. When you change your spam settings it will take a little longer for the new settings to be applied, but that's a small price to pay when considering the improvements the new platform will offer. Our internal testing has proved that IronPort works a lot better for us when compared to Postini. We're confident that customers will notice this too so one of the immediate benefits of moving to IronPort will be a noticable improvement in the actual accuracy of the spam filters themselves. For the more techically savvy amongst you, the MX records for your domains will also change and you'll also notice differences in your email and spam scoring headers. Probably the most significant change of all though will come for the 500 or so customers who are currently using Postini's Quarantine service. Once you've been moved across to IronPort, most of your email will stop getting scanned by Postini's servers. This will render the current Quarantine system pretty useless as all of your email will be bypassing it. You needn't worry though as we'll be replacing the current implementation with an alternative provided by IronPort. Apart from the obvious changes to the way the interface will look, the new Quarantine will also be accessed at a different website address. You'll also have a separate Quarantine login for each email address you have. This is an improvement on the current system which only offers a single cetralised Quarantine for all of your email addresses. One new feature we'll be bringing to the table is the introduction of Quarantine Summary Notificaitons, that get sent to you each day where you've had email quarantined by the IronPort systems. These emails list the messages that have been identified as spam and offer a handy link that delivers the original message to your inbox if you decide it isn't spam. We're going to be emailing all of our Postini Quarantine users directly so that these changes don't come as a surprise. "How will the migration work?" We'll be migrating customers across to the IronPort systems throughout the month of November, starting with a number of test batches later on this week. We're scheduled to begin the migrations in earnest on Wednesday 12th November - update: the migration timeline has changed since the writing of this post. Please see Service Status or our Community Site Forums for the latest information. Those on non-subscription accounts will be moved first, followed closely by residential customers and culminating with business and Quarantine users towards the end of the month. We'll post an announcement regarding each batch of migrations to our Service Status feed. Customers can receive Service Status updates via email by subscribing here . Alternatively there's an RSS feed available here. Because the underlying architecture is already in place, all the migration will involve is a DNS change to point your email at the IronPort devices. There's also a subtle change that needs to be made in one of our email databases so the Manage My Mail interface knows that it needs to start talking to the IronPort platform. DNS changes can take a while to propagate, so the switch won't be instant and for a while you'll be receiving email from both the IronPort and Postini platforms. In fact, after you've been migrated you might still receive the odd email that has been sent through Postini. This is because of a particular technique that spammers use to send bulk email and isn't anything to worry about. Most of you won't even notice it and it will stop as soon as the Postini platform is retired anyway. We understand that many of you are likely to have questions or concerns regarding the migration, which is why we've set up a dedicated forum over on our Community Site. This is a place you can go to find out more about the migration to IronPort and also provides you with the opportunity to asks us any questions you might have about the contents of this blog post. . Webmail & Roundcube - Replacing SquirrelMail with Roundcube. Back in 2007, we launched a Webmail solution based on the popular SquirrelMail. Whilst Squirrel has proved to be perfectly adequate as a Webmail client, I don't think anyone would disagree with the fact that it hasn't got the prettiest of user interfaces? It's also not the best at handling large volumes of email and all too often customers can encounter errors when trying to access a particularly large mailbox or folder. We never intended for SquirrelMail to be a permanent solution and since it was originally deployed we've been looking at alternatives. Here are just a few of the Webmail solutions we've looked at:
Missing from the list above is a tidy little webmail solution that goes by the name of Roundcube. Roundcube's somewhat of a newcomer on the webmail scene but it's fast gaining popularity and is just the sort of thing that we've been looking for. Roundcube offers everything that our current Webmail platform does, has a nice, clean web 2.0 interface, is open source, easily deployed, and more than capable of dealing with large volumes of email. Over recent weeks we've been trialling Roundcube with members of staff and a small number of closed BETA trialists. Feedback so far has been really good so we're aiming to launch a fully-fledged BETA trial early next year. As soon as we have more detail about this it''ll be published right here on Community so watch this space! . Platform consolidation and outbound email - decommissioning the mailc's and using the Ironports for outbound email. Believe it or not, Plusnet's email platform is made up of more than 50 individual servers! Between them, these servers look after inbound email delivery, email collection, outbound email delivery and the Webmail platform. Various factors, including the introduction of Postini last year, have seen the utilisation of the email delivery servers half. As the resources required by the email collection servers is minimal we're going to change the way the network is set up to merge both inbound email delivery and email collection onto a common platform. Consolidating the email platform like this means that we can decommission the servers that aren't needed. This not only saves us money, but also frees up rack space in our data centres and is kinder to the environment. The inbound email platform isn't the only thing that's up for a revamp though, we'll also be changing the way your outgoing email is delivered. One of the beauties of the IronPort devices we've purchased is the fact that they are perfectly capable email servers in their own right. We currently have 8 servers looking after outbound email. It's these servers you connect to when you send a message to our outgoing mail server (relay.plus.net). What we're going to do is decommission the existing servers and instead push all outbound messages through the Ironports. This work is scheduled to start once we've completed the migrations from Postini to IronPort. Using IronPort for outbound email will bring with it a wealth of benefits. Firstly we'll be able to introduce spam filtering on the outbound mail platform. This will drastically reduce support overheads where we have to 'police' the relay servers to make sure they're not being abused by spammers. This is turn will reduce the likelyhood of us ending up on blacklists which can stop you from sending email to other people. The IronPorts offer support for DKIM which is a technique used to verify the authenticity of a particular email. This is good for the same reasons as outbound spam filtering and will help better the reputation of the Plusnet email platform. We'll also be able to start offering secure SMTP over SSL which is something we know our customers have been asking after for a while. Moving to IronPort for outbound email allows us to further reduce the number of servers we're using, and also takes traffic away from Sheffield which reduces bandwith costs (the IronPorts are based in our London data centres). The last part of the consolidation work will be to move the Madasafish email platform to the Plusnet network, allowing us to retire another 33 servers in the process. The timescales for this work are yet to be decided but will be communicated in full nearer the time. . Another long post from me, but hopefully you've found it useful? As always, we're interested to hear what you think about our proposals so feel free to leave a comment or pop over to the newly created IronPort forum over on the Community Site It's exciting times ahead for the Plusnet email platform, and with some of the stuff planned I think we're well on track to having a service that others in the industry will have cause to be envious of! . Bob Pullen Plusnet Comms Team
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