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Antispam firm Brightmail to take on viruses too

The company that built its reputation on software to screen out unsolicited email is transforming itself into an antivirus company as well.

Brightmail, a company that built its reputation on software to screen out unsolicited email, is transforming itself into an antivirus company as well.

The company has released a new software product that, when used in conjunction with Symantec antivirus software, will catch viruses before they arrive at corporate email systems. The software, called the Brightmail Anti-Virus Solution, is intended to head off at the pass inundations of email-borne viruses such as the "Love Bug," or the "I Love You" virus. These programs generate thousands of redundant emails that can paralyze email servers.

The new program essentially screens out these viruses when they attempt to enter the corporate network, said chief executive Gary Hermansen. The software resides on a special server that sits between the Internet and the company's mail server, he said.

The company's virus efforts build upon its core products. Brightmail makes special-purpose software that filters out unwanted commercial email, also called "spam," before it arrives at email servers. Though spam filters are only partly effective, some filter users have lauded antispam efforts.

The two companies aren't strangers. Symantec invested $18 million in Brightmail as part of a $35 million funding round, giving the antivirus firm an 11 percent stake in Brightmail last month. In addition, Symantec executive vice president Dana Siebert joined Brightmail's board.

A number of companies, including Trend Micro and Computer Associates, have long advocated catching viruses at the server. However, security experts have maintained that this strategy can still leave companies vulnerable until antivirus software can be updated to recognize new strains--a matter of hours in the best cases.

Though Hermansen acknowledges that the Brightmail system can be evaded by rapid mutations, he said it improves existing defenses in that it's comparatively easy to update. In addition, the antispam software can help curb the infection rate because large quantities of similar email messages, such as those produced when a virus spreads widely, often are tagged as spam.

The partnership with Brightmail addresses a weakness that has afflicted Symantec antivirus software--which sits on desktops--in catching some viruses such as Kakworm, whose code is included as part of the email text instead of as an attachment. Brightmail's software, at least theoretically, allows such viruses to be screened out before they ever hit the client computers they're intended to infect.

Most analysts agree that desktop computer-based antivirus software, while important, is woefully inadequate given the difficulty of keeping antivirus definitions up to date.

Brightmail doesn't sell software in shrink-wrapped cardboard boxes. Instead, the company charges an annual fee based on the number of mailboxes its software is protecting, Hermansen said. For example, the company charges between $1 and $2 per mailbox per year for its antispam products, he said, adding that it will charge identical rates for the antivirus software.

Brightmail antispam software is used at AT&T Worldnet, Critical Path, Hotmail, Excite@Home and Motorola, Hermansen said. Critical Path is another investor in Brightmail.

The software can be installed alongside Brightmail's antispam software or can be put on a new separate server, he said. It runs on computers running Sun Microsystems' Solaris operating system and works in concert with Sendmail, iPlanet, InterMail and Isocor email software.

The company plans a Windows 2000 version later this year, said Hermansen, adding that the company also is thinking about a Linux version.

Brightmail, based in San Francisco, has about 85 employees. Of those, 25 are developers and 25 are support staff who help install software and run Brightmail's own detection software that seeks out new spam, Hermansen said.