IBM announced on Monday that it would release a free Secure Mailer e-mail server program, which it hopes will replace the Internet-based SendMail equivalent.
As a result, it is posting the source code to Secure Mailer on the Internet, while claiming it is more secure and up to three times faster than its open source rival.
Wietse Venema, the IBM researcher who wrote the software, said: "Our goal was to offer people an alternative to the SendMail program, which is responsible for transporting 70 percent of the e-mails sent over the Internet."
Secure Mailer is intended to handle the transfer of e-mail messages between e-mail servers and is compatible with SendMail, but is not intended to compete with commercial e-mail servers such as the cc:Mail and Domino products from IBM?s Lotus subsidiary, or Microsoft?s Exchange.
"We think these products are complimentary", said Charles Palmer, IBM?s manager of network security and cryptography research, but added that Big Blue did not expect to generate any revenues from its new offering.
"It?s just going to make the Internet a safer place to do business," he attested, while acknowledging that providing Internet-based e-mail with a safer image might take some customers away from other proprietary systems.
But mail servers were often the weak point in a company?s network, Venema explained, because they were exposed to the outside world. This meant a hacker who could access the mail hub could sometimes use it as the basis to hack into other servers on the network.
Security in Secure Mailer had been improved, however, by componentising the server. As a result, even if a hacker managed to find a weakness in one component, the rest of the system would not be compromised, he claimed.
While IBM?s source-code give-away may appear surprising, it admitted that expenditure on the offering was minimal. It was written by one person, working intermittantly on the project for two years.
And Big Blue is not entirely new to the open source arena either. It has been posting source code on its alphaworks.com web site for some time and provided the source code to its Java compiler, Jikes, a week ago.
But Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with IDC, said: "I think part of [the motivation] is feeding the Anything-But-Microsoft movement" because both vendors and customers are looking at open source software as an alternative to the software giant?s offerings.
He added that other commercial companies may follow IBM?s lead and offer up some of their innovations to the open source community.
"I would expect we will see a number of companies doing this. It?s not clear that this [open source business model] is viable long term. That remains to be seen. But it is clear that there is a trend here and it?s growing," he concluded.
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