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Feel the Power, With SurgeMail

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SurgeMail: Complete, aggressively priced mail server

NetWin’s SurgeMail boasts of an open architecture that enables the server to achieve high performance at a price point low enough to minimize many barriers to adoption. But the steps it took to get there may bring with them inherent obstacles.

Today, the mail server space is as cramped as ever. Products compete by differentiating themselves, which more often than not means touting their anti-virus/anti-spam capabilities or groupware functionality. NetWin’s SurgeMail has taken a different track. It boasts of an open architecture that enables the server to achieve high performance at a price point low enough to minimize the barriers to adoption.

SurgeMail hails from the newly crowned Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand. But SurgeMail, which is the latest incarnation of the mail server formerly known as DMail, illustrates that the land of Hobbits and Mordor can also put forth modern, sophisticated technology.

The 6 MB download expands to nearly 24 MB on disk. Of course, a mail server will, by nature, consume disk space as its traffic increases. SurgeMail supports NFS and thus can take advantage of networked filesystems with large capacities. The installation routine is relatively straightforward, albeit a little rough around the edges. This sense remains as one continues working with SurgeMail. We also found the mail server’s supporting text, from the installer to the product and support pages, to often be awkwardly written and perhaps too informal — there is much reliance on asides and emoticons. Still, the product installs easily enough and shouldn’t be too quickly judged.

SurgeMail is administered entirely through a Web interface, a move we wish more products would follow. Besides the convenience of remote administration, Web-based administration contributes to consistency between interfaces as opposed to the mish-mash often found with console-based proprietary management clients.

SurgeMail’s high modularity makes it extremely configurable to adapt to a wide variety of systems and needs. Its cross-platform support for a variety of Windows and Unix distros illustrates this flexibility. NetWin’s customer service can even modify the product to suit a client’s needs on request — an unusual but refreshing approach. In particular, SurgeMail’s architecture is built of components focused on particular pieces of the puzzle, from client access (POP and Webmail) to mail protocol (POP and IMAP) and transport protocol (HTTP and HTTPS). NetWin also offers processing modules (for anti-virus and anti-spam support) and authentication modules (e.g., LDAP, Oracle, and MySQL). Each module is highly configurable.

This flexibility comes at a price, however: a management interface brimming with options. The interface expects a certain amount of foreknowledge on the part of the admin. Consider, for example, the very basic management function of creating a new user. The admin form asks you to fill in a number of fields including, “Access type,” “Account Status,” and “User access settings.” None of these are drop-down menus to provide a choice of values. Each field is linked to a support page that explains the kind of parameters you can type into these fields. Although this is not necessarily a design flaw (and it might even be seen as a strength by those who feel limited by purely point-and-click admin tools), it does presuppose a learning curve worth noting.

Similarly, SurgeMail’s support for anti-spam and anti-virus filters is very flexible. It relies on NetWin’s own “SmiteSpam” hybrid system for scoring and marking spam with relevant mail headers. SmiteSpam doesn’t use Bayesian filtering, but it does claim a 98 percent accuracy rate based on its text filter and user reporting system. To defend against viruses, SurgeMail can internally support products from Avast and and F-Prot, as well as any third-party command-line anti-virus scanner. More importantly, it allows the admin to create a sophisticated ruleset for defining how SurgeMail handles messages it deems tainted with spam or viruses. Thus, deciding where to set the threshold for server-based and user-based filtering is up to the admin.

For a product with the capacity to handle high loads with its support for mirroring and even cluster arrangements, SurgeMail is both very capable and competitively priced. However, the product feels gritty. It lacks a refined management interface and supporting text, which will pose obstacles for admins who expect a very streamlined mail server. On the other hand, an admin who really wants to get under the hood and feel grit under the nails will appreciate SurgeMail’s open architecture and modular design.

Pros: Sophisticated design; High performance and configurability; Competitive price.
Cons: Informal feel; Awkward supporting documentation; Somewhat hostile environment for inexperienced admins.

Reviewed by: Aaron Weiss
Original Review Date:5/5/2004
Original Review Version: 1.8g3

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