VBSpam comparative review September 2010


Martijn Grooten

Virus Bulletin, UK
Editor: Helen Martin


A new spam feed and an expansion of the ham corpus ensured that anti‑spam products in this month’s test were tested to their full abilities. Martijn Grooten has the results.

My spam isn’t the same as your spam, which then isn’t the same as the spam of the man playing with his iPhone next to you on the bus. That isn’t too surprising: our respective email addresses may have ended up on different spammers’ lists, and different spammers send different spam. But spam sent to addresses on one domain also differs from that sent to addresses on a different domain, and even groups of domains – where one might expect such differences to average out – receive spam that differs significantly.

We have always kept this in mind when running our anti-spam tests. Since we wanted the tests to provide a measure of performance that would be relevant to any organization, we didn’t want to use the spam sent to a single domain, or even group of domains. This is the reason why we have been using Project Honey Pot’s spam feed for our tests. Project Honey Pot receives spam sent to a large number of spam traps on a large number of domains, distributed all over the world. By using this feed, we can be sure that products are being tested against spam that isn’t any more likely to be received by someone in the UK than by someone in, say, New Zealand.

However, we always like to see things from a different perspective, and this is why we are very pleased to have developed a relationship with Abusix, a German company that also manages a large number of spam traps. From this test onwards, Abusix will provide us with a second spam corpus; in this test, and in all future tests, products will see spam from both streams (as well as a number of legitimate emails) and will be required to filter all of these emails correctly.

This month’s test included 19 full solutions and one partial solution. For various reasons, a number of products that have participated in previous tests decided to sit this one out, but most of them expect to be back on the test bench next time. All of the full solutions tested this month achieved a VBSpam award. However, for several products there is still significant room for improvement and no doubt their developers will be working hard to see their products move towards the top right-hand corner of the VBSpam quadrant.

The test set-up

The test methodology can be found at http://www.virusbtn.com/vbspam/methodology/. Email was sent to the products in parallel and in real time, and products were given the option to block email pre-DATA. Five products chose to make use of this option.

As in previous tests, the products that needed to be installed on a server were installed on a Dell PowerEdge R200, with a 3.0GHz dual core processor and 4GB of RAM. The Linux products ran on SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 11; the Windows Server products ran on either the 2003 or the 2008 version, depending on which was recommended by the vendor.

To compare the products, we calculate a ‘final score’, defined as the spam catch (SC) rate minus three times the false positive (FP) rate. Products earn VBSpam certification if this value is at least 96:

SC - (3 x FP) ≥ 96

The email corpus

The test ran from midnight on 29 August 2010 to midnight on 6 September 2010, a period of eight full days. This was a shorter testing period than usual. A number of system crashes had caused the test network to be unreliable for several days after the test was initially started, and rather than using results from periods between the crashes when the network appeared to be working well, we decided to err on the side of caution and restart the whole test. The addition of a second spam stream and an increase in the size of the ham corpus gave us quantities of email comparable to those of previous tests despite the shorter test period.

The corpus contained 211,968 emails, 209,766 of which were spam. Of these spam emails 148,875 were provided by Project Honey Pot and 60,891 were provided by Abusix; in both cases they were relayed in real time, as were all legitimate messages, of which there were 2,202. The introduction of some new mailing lists (see VB, May 2010, p.24 for details), some of which are in foreign languages not previously included, means that seven out of the ten most commonly spoken languages in the world are now represented in the ham corpus.

The graph below shows the average spam catch rate for all products during every hour that the test ran (with the best and worst performing products removed from the computation of the averages). The graph shows that spam was harder to filter in certain periods than in others; for instance new spam campaigns tend to be harder to filter than ones that have been running for a while.

Average spam catch rate for every hour the test is run. (For the computation of the average spam catch rate per hour, the best performing and worst performing products during that hour have not been included. This should prevent the averages from being skewed by a possible problem a single product may have during that time.)

Figure 1. Average spam catch rate for every hour the test is run. (For the computation of the average spam catch rate per hour, the best performing and worst performing products during that hour have not been included. This should prevent the averages from being skewed by a possible problem a single product may have during that time.)


Anubis Mail Protection Service

SC rate: 99.93%

SC rate (image spam): 99.77%

SC rate (large spam): 99.63%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.05%

Final score: 99.80

Lisbon-based AnubisNetworks, the largest email security provider in Portugal, made a good debut in the previous test. The product’s developers, however, were only mildly satisfied with the test results as they believed the product was capable of better. They were right – this month the product’s spam catch rate increased, and the false positive rate was reduced to just a single missed email. With the second highest final score of this test, the developers should be very pleased with these results and the accompanying VBSpam award.

BitDefender Security for Mail Servers 3.0.2

SC rate: 99.91%

SC rate (image spam): 99.81%

SC rate (large spam): 99.20%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.00%

Final score: 99.91

I like it when developers have confidence in their product, and BitDefender’s developers demonstrated plenty of confidence when they were among the first to submit their product to the VBSpam tests in the early days. Despite this, they have never stopped trying to find ways to improve the product and have always been eager to hear feedback on its performance. BitDefender is the only product to have won a VBSpam award in every single VBSpam test – and with one of the highest catch rates in this test, and no false positives, it outperforms all other products and achieves the highest final score this month.

Fortinet FortiMail

SC rate: 98.44%

SC rate (image spam): 97.34%

SC rate (large spam): 95.98%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.05%

Final score: 98.30

One of the products that has been filtering mail quietly ever since its introduction to the tests, FortiMail wins its eighth VBSpam award in as many attempts. It does so with a nicely improved performance, demonstrating that the product’s developers are keeping up with the latest spam campaigns.

Kaspersky Anti-Spam 3.0

SC rate: 98.30%

SC rate (image spam): 98.25%

SC rate (large spam): 97.37%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.05%

Final score: 98.16

Neither the new ham nor the new spam stream proved to be a problem for Kaspersky. The company’s Linux product saw its false positive rate improve, while barely compromising on the spam catch rate. Kaspersky easily wins another VBSpam award.

Libra Esva 2.0

SC rate: 99.96%

SC rate (image spam): 99.92%

SC rate (large spam): 99.71%

SC rate pre-DATA: 97.93%

FP rate: 0.32%

Final score: 99.01

Once again, Libra Esva had one of the highest spam catch rates of all products. Compared to previous tests, the product scored a slightly higher false positive rate – whilst this is something for the developers to pay attention to, the FP rate was still only average. With another very respectable final score, the Italian product wins its third consecutive VBSpam award.

M86 MailMarshal SMTP

SC rate: 99.97%

SC rate (image spam): 99.96%

SC rate (large spam): 99.93%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.5%

Final score: 98.47

M86’s MailMarshal blocked the second largest amount of spam of all the products in this test, which is quite an achievement. Unfortunately, the product also missed almost a dozen legitimate emails, which lowered its final score quite significantly. It was still decent though, earning the product its sixth VBSpam award, but the developers will need to concentrate on reducing the FP rate, while not compromising too much on the amount of spam caught.

McAfee Email Gateway (formerly IronMail)

SC rate: 97.81%

SC rate (image spam): 93.08%

SC rate (large spam): 96.85%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.45%

Final score: 96.45

McAfee’s Email Gateway Appliance suffered what appeared to be a temporary glitch during this test – with a disappointing spam catch rate towards the start of the test improving to see scores of over 99% during the final days of the test. Despite a small number of false positives, the product still earns a VBSpam award, but the product’s developers will no doubt be working hard to determine the cause of the earlier problems and to ensure its spam catch rate remains consistently high in future.

McAfee Email and Web Security Appliance

SC rate: 99.05%

SC rate (image spam): 92.98%

SC rate (large spam): 90.20%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.27%

Final score: 98.23

McAfee’s Email and Web Security Appliance achieved a VBSpam award in the previous test, but with a rather low final score. It was good to see that this appears to have been a one-off dip, rather than a serious problem with the installation; a high spam catch rate combined with a small handful of false positives easily earns the product its seventh VBSpam award.


SC rate: 99.08%

SC rate (image spam): 99.68%

SC rate (large spam): 99.56%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.09%

Final score: 98.81

As a product whose customers are based mostly in the Anglo-Saxon world, correctly filtering email in foreign languages may not be a high priority for MessageStream. However, in an industry where the devil is in the details, the developers have taken good care of even these details: a spam catch rate of over 99%, combined with just two false positives, means that the hosted solution more than deserves its eighth VBSpam award.

Messaging Architects M+Guardian

SC rate: 99.95%

SC rate (image spam): 99.94%

SC rate (large spam): 99.85%

SC rate pre-DATA: 94.89%

FP rate: 0.91%

Final score: 97.22

Quite understandably, M+Guardian’s developers were not happy with their product’s performance in the last test – in which it failed to achieve a VBSpam award. They looked into the settings of the appliance and among the changes they made was to turn on XCLIENT; this way they could use pre-DATA filtering, which they believe is one of the core benefits of the product.

Indeed, almost 94.9% of the spam was blocked this way, while the subsequent content filtering left less than 0.1% of spam unfiltered. An excellent spam catch rate, and M+Guardian easily reclaims its VBSpam award. However, there will be some disappointment for the developers over an incorrectly blocked domain which accounted for 15 of the 20 false positives.

Pro-Mail (Prolocation)

SC rate: 98.28%

SC rate (image spam): 99.66%

SC rate (large spam): 93.93%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.05%

Final score: 98.15

Like several anti-spam solutions, Pro-Mail, the hosted solution that debuted in the last test, classifies email into not two but three categories: ham, spam and ‘possibly spam’. Messages that fall into the ‘possibly spam’ category are not blocked by the product but, as a header is added, can be put into a separate folder. Emails in this category were considered to have been marked as ham in this test, which may explain the product’s relatively low spam catch rate. It was still decent enough for the product to win a VBSpam award though, and with just one false positive, it would be interesting to see what effect a stricter filtering policy would have.

Sophos Email Appliance

SC rate: 99.92%

SC rate (image spam): 99.64%

SC rate (large spam): 99.78%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.14%

Final score: 99.51

There is a reason why we run an anti-spam test every two months: while one decent performance is certainly a promising sign, what really matters is that a product manages to perform well repeatedly. With four good sets of results in as many VBSpam tests – each time achieving a final score among the top seven in the test – the Sophos Email Appliance certainly satisfies that criterion and adds another VBSpam award to its collection.

SPAMfighter Mail Gateway

SC rate: 98.67%

SC rate (image spam): 97.07%

SC rate (large spam): 93.12%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.14%

Final score: 98.26

It has been a while since I last needed to log into the admin interface of SPAMfighter. That is a good thing, but what is even better is that the product’s developers have been working on their product in the meantime and upgrades have been downloaded automatically. This test saw improvements to both the spam catch rate and the false positive rate and, consequently, a significant improvement to the product’s final score, winning SPAMfighter its sixth consecutive VBSpam award.


SC rate: 99.07%

SC rate (image spam): 99.96%

SC rate (large spam): 98.24%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.64%

Final score: 97.17

SpamTitan is one of several products that suffered from more than a handful of false positives in this test. False positives are undesirable and customers are unlikely to accept them unless the spam catch rate of the product is exceptional. SpamTitan’s spam catch rate is very good – pushing the product’s final score up to above the VBSpam threshold – but the developers will no doubt be spending some time scrutinizing the false positive samples in an attempt to improve the product’s position on the VBSpam quadrant.

Symantec Brightmail Gateway 9.0

SC rate: 99.64%

SC rate (image spam): 99.92%

SC rate (large spam): 99.71%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.00%

Final score: 99.64

A product that manages to increase an already excellent spam catch rate, while eliminating the single false positive that pestered it in the previous test clearly deserves a VBSpam award. Symantec’s Brightmail Gateway virtual appliance did exactly that, completing this test with the third highest final score and the product’s fifth VBSpam award.

The Email Laundry

SC rate: 99.81%

SC rate (image spam): 99.96%

SC rate (large spam): 99.71%

SC rate pre-DATA: 94.82%

FP rate: 0.18%

Final score: 99.27

The significant drop in The Email Laundry’s pre-DATA catch rate since the last test deserves some explanation. The drop does not necessarily mean that the product’s spam-filtering performance has worsened, but that spam has changed and, consequently, blocking on senders’ domains and IP addresses wasn’t as effective this month as it was in previous months.

What matters to the user is the percentage of spam that makes it to the inbox and this has decreased a fraction. There were a few false positives this time, but not enough to stop the hosted solution from achieving the fifth highest final score and earning a VBSpam award.

Vade Retro Center

SC rate: 99.44%

SC rate (image spam): 99.79%

SC rate (large spam): 98.02%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.36%

Final score: 98.35

Vade Retro is the market leader in France, but international spam is no problem for the product and it saw its catch rate improve significantly this month. With a small number of exceptions, legitimate email in foreign languages proved no problem either. The product thus wins its third VBSpam award in as many tests and with its best results to date.

Vamsoft ORF

SC rate: 99.32%

SC rate (image spam): 99.03%

SC rate (large spam): 97.07%

SC rate pre-DATA: N/A

FP rate: 0.36%

Final score: 98.24

No doubt ORF’s developers will be frustrated with two senders in this month’s ham corpus, each of which caused four false positives, thus breaking their zero false positive record to date. However, it should be seen as a gentle reminder to all developers that no one can ignore the problem of false positives. Moreover, an improved spam catch rate means the product still achieved a decent final score and thus wins its third VBSpam award.

Webroot Email Security Service

SC rate: 99.99%

SC rate (image spam): 99.96%

SC rate (large spam): 99.34%

SC rate pre-DATA: 63.92%

FP rate: 0.64%

Final score: 98.08

Webroot was one of five products filtering email pre-DATA. It did not block as many emails during this stage as other products did, but this is not a sign that something is wrong with the product: it reflects a choice made by the developers as to where spam is filtered. And with more spam blocked than any other product, Webroot’s choice appears to be a good one. Unfortunately, there were a number of false positives this time, but the product easily earned another VBSpam award – its seventh to date.

Spamhaus ZEN

SC rate: 91.36%

SC rate (image spam): 92.03%

SC rate (large spam): 90.78%

SC rate pre-DATA: 91.36%

FP rate: 0.00%

Final score: 91.36

We owe an apology to The Spamhaus Project, as a bug on our side caused the Spamhaus DBL – the domain blacklist that in previous tests worked so well alongside Spamhaus’s ZEN blacklist – to fail during the running of this test. This is a shame, especially since Spamhaus ZEN – which combines three IP blacklists – performed significantly less well here than in previous tests.

It is important to realize that Spamhaus is a partial solution and is not supposed to be applied on its own. And while, together with the DBL, it is still recommended that the blacklists be supplemented with a content filter, the DBL is supposed to work especially well together with the organization’s IP blacklists. What we can see is that during a period when pre-DATA filtering has produced worse results than during previous periods, Spamhaus is still a reliable first line of defence against spam – in particular because, once again, no legitimate emails were blocked



For some products, the addition of a second spam stream and/or the new emails added to the ham corpus this month has given them something to work on; developers of other products will be trying to repeat this month’s performance. As always, we will be working hard too – perhaps even harder than before. After nine successful tests, the VBSpam set-up is ready to go ‘2.0’.

For readers of the comparative reviews, little to nothing will change, but the new set-up will ensure greater system stability and allow room for the tests to grow bigger. Moreover, the provision of feedback on products’ performance to the participants – most of which has been done manually until now – will be semi-automated, saving considerable time.

The next test is due to run throughout October, with results published in the November issue of Virus Bulletin. The deadline for submission of products will be Friday 24 September. Any developers interested in submitting a product should email [email protected].



Latest reviews:

VBSpam comparative review

The Q1 2024 VBSpam test measured the performance of nine full email security solutions, one custom configured solution and one open‑source solution.

VBSpam comparative review

The Q4 2023 VBSpam test measured the performance of eight full email security solutions, one custom configured solution, one open-source solution and one blocklist.

VBSpam comparative review

In the Q3 2023 VBSpam test we measured the performance of eight full email security solutions, one custom configured solution, one open-source solution and one blocklist.

VBSpam comparative review

In the Q2 2023 VBSpam test we measured the performance of nine full email security solutions, one custom configured solution, one open-source solution and one blocklist.

VBSpam comparative review

In the Q1 2023 VBSpam test we measured the performance of eight full email security solutions, one custom configured solution, one open-source solution and one blocklist.

We have placed cookies on your device in order to improve the functionality of this site, as outlined in our cookies policy. However, you may delete and block all cookies from this site and your use of the site will be unaffected. By continuing to browse this site, you are agreeing to Virus Bulletin's use of data as outlined in our privacy policy.