Stop viruses at your door

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Gauging just how serious a threat email viruses pose these days is difficult because of the many hoaxes and relatively benign viruses that exist. But a viral infection is never a good thing, and email viruses are especially nefarious because they tend to spread infection as soon as you open the attachment. Although your end users should maintain an antivirus solution on their desktops,ensuring that users' virus scanners are regularly updated—or are even running—is difficult.

The most seamless and transparent way to maintain a virus-free Microsoft Exchange Server environment is to use a server-side virus scanner. A good server-side antivirus application serves as your first line of defense against viruses. An Exchange antivirus program creates a chokepoint at your network's front door, detects infected email and attachments, and cleans or quarantines them before they even enter your network.

The most important criterion in an Exchange antivirus solution is frequent virus-definition updates that you can deploy automatically and painlessly. New viruses appear often, and responsive vendors will issue definition updates within hours of a serious virus outbreak. A virus scanner that isn't promptly updated to detect new strains won't be able to stop new viruses from entering your network. Look for a program that automatically connects every day to the vendor's server to retrieve and install updates.

If you're using Exchange 2000 Server, you'll probably want a solution that supports Microsoft's Virus Scanning API (VS API) 2.0, which ships with Exchange 2000 Service Pack 1 (SP1). An antivirus program that leverages the VS API can scan all incoming and outgoing traffic, providing the highest possible level of integration with Exchange.

Choose a product that includes comprehensive reporting options to keep you updated about what's happening behind the scenes. Look at the native report format that the product uses (in a network environment, HTML is preferred) and the level of detail reports include. Notification options are also important if you work with high-traffic Exchange servers—ideal solutions can notify you through email or Short Message Service (SMS) when they detect any suspicious activity. Finally, flexible and customizable rule sets let you easily tailor the software to your environment.

At the architectural level, packages that use multiple threads provide better performance. If you work with multiple Exchange systems, a single-server scanning solution probably won't do you much good—you'll want a program that can automatically scale up and accommodate server clustering options. In large-scale environments, choose a solution with an HTML-based interface that lets you maintain all servers from one central access point.

Pricing is a major factor in selecting an Exchange antivirus solution. Maintaining a clean network isn't cheap, but different vendors offer different pricing options. Small environments will probably want a program with a tiered site-licensing structure. For a midsized network, a flat-rate or a bulk seat license package is more economical, whereas per-seat licensing is the most economical solution for large installations.

But don't sacrifice features and performance to cost. All the products listed in this Buyer's Guide should keep your network clean, but product-specific features will determine which piece of software best fits your environment. Think of your purchase as a one-time investment that will protect your network for years to come.