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The Many Faces Of Content Filtering

A recent rash of virus outbreaks, astronomical increases in spam and a general growth in privacy concerns have brought content filtering to the forefront of business management practices. Add a dash of business productivity concerns and the need to filter inappropriate content, and there has never been a better time for solution providers to offer content filtering technologies.

Many products on the market now control access to a range of network services, including instant messaging, FTP access, e-mail, file sharing, streaming media and others.

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FRANK J. OHLHORST
Technology Editor

Furthermore, content filtering technologies protect users and networks from nefarious applications such as spyware, Trojan horses, worms or eavesdropping applications.

Content filtering also can protect companies from lawsuits spurred by human resources concerns or copyright violations caused by unauthorized file sharing. With those capabilities in mind, solution providers can now use the argument that content filtering should be considered a key element of network security.

Arguably, the easiest way to implement content filtering technology is with an appliance, and many rack-mounted appliances include content filtering capabilities that can be managed via a Web browser. Appliances, however, don't scale as well as server-based applications and are harder to integrate, often employing proprietary user accounts that make linking to existing user account databases more of a challenge.

Another choice is to deploy software-based content filtering solutions. For network installations, software-based content filtering is installed on a server-class system, which either can be dedicated to the task of content filtering or can be a server that performs many functions along with content filtering chores. The latter style of implementation allows scalability and offers an economical solution.

BY THENUMBERS
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PERCENTAGE OF typical coporate e-mail that is spam (Brightmail)
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NUMBER, IN BILLIONS of spam messages expected in 2003 (eMarketer)
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ESTIMATED AMOUNT, IN BILLIONS OF DOLLARS, that spam costs businesses each year (Ferris Research)
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AMOUNT, In BILLIONS OF DOLLARS, that the market for content security is expected to reach by 2007, up from $506 million in 2002 (TDC)
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PERCENTAGE OF U.S. FIRMS that experienced a virus attack in 2002 (IDC)

Single-server networks can add a content filtering product to existing hardware, while multiserver networks can scale out a filtering solution to additional server hardware. Solution providers will have to plan accordingly for compatibility and load when deploying a software-based solution and should take maintenance into account as well. While maintenance functions can be automated on appliances, solution providers integrating software solutions will need to account for maintenance tasks, which can be rolled into a revenue-rich service contract.

For very small networks or non-networked PC users, solution providers can deploy desktop-based content filtering packages. Many of those packages are designed for end-user installations and often focus on the education or home markets. The products concentrate on filtering inappropriate content while offering a software-based firewall to protect desktop systems. The upside of those products is low cost and ease of implementation; the downside is a limited feature set.

To choose the right product, solution providers first need to define the scale of the solution and the customer's technical expertise. Appliances are often good for small and midsize networks, while well-integrated software solutions are best for enterprise-class networks.

The next step is to identify what content needs to be filtered and from whom. This will determine what services are controlled,http, ftp, e-mail and instant messaging, for example,and how activity around those services is tracked. Advanced solutions offer granular control, allowing administrators to drill down to both content and user definitions. Solution providers should also consider the importance of robust reporting for determining ROI.

Content filters also vary in their methodology. Some rely on downloaded filtering lists. Others use heuristics and keywords to define content. Better solutions offer a combination of technologies.

Solution providers need to focus on training and fine-tuning the software. Training helps dispel many misconceptions about content filtering, while fine-tuning prevents false positives when desired content is incorrectly blocked.

Almost any business can benefit from content filtering, making it an easy sell for solution providers.

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