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DNS Blocking Can Shut Your Email Down

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"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

--Inscription on New York City Post Office

The quotation above is a loose translation taken from The Histories of Herodotus, describing the famous Persian couriers who used a relay system of horses and riders to deliver messages across the Persian Empire. (William M. Kendall, an employee of the architectural company that designed the New York City Post Office building in 1914, suggested that this inscription be placed on the new building as a dedication to the postal workers who would inhabit it.)

In the world of electronic messages, we expect a similar resiliency from our SMTP mail servers: We expect our email to arrive swiftly through the Internet, regardless of the obstacles that might attempt to interfere with its delivery along the network. And, indeed, the very nature of TCP/IP, with its packet addressing schemes and legions of routers and servers, allows most of our email to arrive flawlessly anywhere in the world, almost instantaneously. Packets of email messages get relayed thousands and hundreds of thousands of times, enabling us to conduct our business communications in a more efficient and virtual manner.

But now all of that is in peril. The great flood of unsolicited email, called spam, has forced network administrators to take drastic draconian measures, and the result of those measures may quite soon destroy the Internet's email function. In fact, those measures may be impacting your email system right now.

How?

DNS Blocking Targets Spammers but Also Hits Legitimate Users

Internet network administrators have begun using a technique called DNS blocking to cut off email that they believe is coming from spammers. They have developed blacklists of IP addresses that are known to be the sources of spam. These blocking blacklists are being promulgated by administrators throughout the Internet, so when an email passes through the network, the IP address of the sender's server is compared to addresses of servers believed to have been the source of spam in the past. If the addresses match, the email is rejected--sometimes sending a rejection message back to the originator and sometimes not. The purpose of these DNS blocks is to reduce the volume of spam, much as a traffic cop might pull over an unsafe delivery vehicle. They are becoming "filters" embedded within the Internet itself, fully automated and relatively bulletproof.

"So, no problem," you're thinking. "We don't send spam, so why should we worry?"

You should be concerned because the methods by which these automated administration mechanisms are identifying spamming servers may not necessarily be accurate or appropriate. The implementation of these services will sometimes interrupt the delivery of legitimate messages--sent by your SMTP mail server. And once your mail server becomes blocked, it becomes a nightmare to restore its former functionality.

Not only that, as more and more IP addresses of SMTP servers are added to the blacklist, our ability to send email may soon no longer be as resilient as we need in order to transact business on the Internet. In fact, sending a message via email may end up as error-prone and haphazard as communicating over twisted twine between two tin cans.

How can this happen? To get the answer, you need to understand a bit about SMTP and the functionality of something called open relays.

SMTP Open Relays

Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) is the protocol that forms the backbone of our email communications. It's a protocol that consists of headers and tags identifying the elements of each email transaction such as From, To, Subject, and the Body of the message as well as the form and placement of text, file attachments, and other things. Email servers transmit and receive messages using the SMTP format, and email client software interacts with an SMTP server when it needs to send a message out along the Internet. (This is one protocol used in Internet email; the other is called Post Office Protocol (POP3), which is used to extract messages from an email account and offload those messages into the client software. Thus, as email users, we "send" messages using SMTP, but we generally receive them on our PCs through POP3 servers.)

One of the features of SMTP servers has always been--like the Persian couriers in the time of Herodotus--to relay messages passed to it by third parties to other SMTP servers on their routes. When an SMTP server is functioning in this capacity, it is called an open relay. In an open relay environment, it doesn't matter where the message originates: The purpose of the relay is to get the message to its destination. In such an environment, "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Just like the fabled Persian couriers of old or the not-so-fabled United States postal workers.

Hijacked SMTPs

Unfortunately, spammers have learned that they can hijack the SMTP servers on the network to also indiscriminately relay their unsolicited email to anyone they want. As a result, if your SMTP server is configured as an open relay, it may be an unwitting accomplice to the flood of spam that is currently filling email mailboxes. How?

A spammer first tracks down an email address back to the originating IP address of the SMTP server. He then attempts to send a message back to himself through that SMTP server. If he is successful, he will have discovered an "open relay" and is free to utilize that server to send spam anywhere he chooses.

Meanwhile, if a recipient of his unsolicited email complains about the spam, the spammer is fully protected because his originating IP address will have been doctored to reflect the SMTP server that performed the open relay.

Following the Bouncing Email

Now, if an Internet network administrator puts the offending SMTP server on a DNS blocking blacklist--to shut off the source of the spam--the spammer simply looks for yet another open relay on some other SMTP server and continues on his merry way.
However, for legitimate users who need that SMTP server to deliver mail, the DNS block will also suddenly reject that legitimate outgoing email. The innocent sender of a legitimate email will have no recourse except to complain to his email administrator, who typically has few resources to fix the problem. This administrator will look at the rejected email and perhaps see a cryptic message like this:

Diagnostic-Code: smtp;550 5.7.1 Mail from 216.55.140.9 refused by blackhole site relays.osirusoft.com.

In the message above, the IP address 216.55.140.9 that represents the SMTP server has been blocked from delivering any mail along the route serviced by the blacklist service called "relays.osirusoft.com." To unblock the SMTP server, the server administrator must now contact this organization to remove the server from the blacklist.

However, this is merely one blacklist service that may be blocking email from the SMTP server. And the blacklist itself may have been already passed to other DNS blocking services, magnifying the problem. And, by the time an email administrator is made aware of the problem (when his users start complaining), the blacklist may have been passed to hundreds of DNS blocking services along the Internet, slowly choking off the functionality of the SMTP server until at last nothing can be delivered.

Automated DNS Blocking Services Are Closing Down All Open Relays

Most insidious is the fact that some DNS blacklisting services have begun automated attacks against all open relay SMTP servers, hunting them down in exactly the same manner that spammers have tracked them and then automatically adding those IP addresses to their blacklists. In other words, these DNS blacklisting services are actively shutting down every open relay in an effort to curtail the volume of spam, regardless of whether the particular SMTP server was ever used as a spamming source. Furthermore, some of these services are blacklisting entire ranges of IP addresses--not just a unique SMTP server address--in their zeal to choke off the spam.

Is this a legal use of the Internet? Who knows? But it's happening! And if your SMTP server hasn't been blocked, you need to protect it now. How?

The safest thing to do is to make certain that only registered users with email accounts at known IP addresses can use your SMTP server. This can usually be accomplished in the configuration of the SMTP server itself, closing down the server's open relay ability.

Legit Open Relays

Unfortunately, shutting down the SMTP server's ability to function as an open relay may also severely limit the use of SMTP by those who have a legitimate need to relay email. Consider, for instance, the salesman who is traveling with a laptop: He may have a need to relay email from the road using a dialup ISP. (For these users, implementing a "POP3 before SMTP" script may need to be implemented. This technique allows the SMTP server to send email for a brief time after the user has logged onto his POP3 email account and extracted messages.)

Unblocking the DNS Block

And what about an SMTP server that has already been mistakenly blocked? Well, the options are few, and they take a lot of time to implement.

First, the email administrator needs to find out which DNS blocking services are actually blocking the SMTP server. This may be one service or dozens or hundreds. Fortunately, there are several sites on the Internet that will tell him where the server has been blacklisted, including http://relays.osirusoft.com and http://www.abuse.net. These services may allow you to run a query to determine where a DNS block has been put into effect. However, they are not particularly "user friendly," and they are replete with disclaimers about what they will or can do to help.

Next, the email administrator will be required to button down your SMTP mail server so that it no longer functions as an open relay. This means changing the configuration of the server so that only authorized users with email accounts can make use of it.

Then, after the open relay has been closed on your SMTP server, the email administrator will need to contact every one of the blacklisting services to have them retest your SMTP server for an open relay. Each blacklisting service has a different method of accomplishing this task, and it may take hours, days, or weeks for them to clear your site. Furthermore, once the block has been removed, it may take up to 24 hours for your service to be restored. In the meantime, the email users will no doubt complain that their email isn't getting through. They will be able to receive email through their POP3 accounts, but they'll be unable to respond back.

Changing Your IP Address May Not Work

Another technique to more quickly resolve a blocked SMPT server is to actually change the IP address of the SMTP server itself by contacting your hosting ISP. But if the server has dozens or hundreds of email clients tied to it, this too can take a tremendous amount of time, because each email client will need to be reconfigured to access the new IP address for mail.

Furthermore, if the SMTP server has been mistakenly blocked, it's possible that all the IP addresses associated with your Internet domain may have also been blocked, so the email administrator will need to check once again with the DNS blocking service to make certain the SMTP server has a clean bill of health.

Will DNS Blocking Stop Spammers?

Meanwhile, where is all of this DNS blocking leaving the functionality of the Internet? Will DNS blocking actually eliminate spammers? Probably not! Spammers will no doubt quickly create new schemes to find other security holes by which they can send their unsolicited bulk mail. It's only a matter of time.

But what is most troubling is the manner by which Internet administrators have dealt with the problem of spam: It's a preemptive and "blanket" condemnation, penalizing the innocent SMTP email installations as well as guilty spam sites. It kills all the open relays, without really addressing the root causes of Internet security. And though today these administrators are building automatic robots that are targeting spam sites, tomorrow they may build robots to target email clients that unwittingly proliferate viruses or, by extension, anything that they deem inappropriate. This technique, by any measurement of propriety, is an incursion into our businesses' infrastructures--without our companies' knowledge or consent. No warning is required: They can come and "fix" us as they please.

The result may be that we lose the flexibility and the functionality of the Internet as a business tool for sending communications. In our electronic analogy of Herodotus' Persian couriers, these Internet administrators may be shooting the messenger simply because they don't like the message that is being carried.

Thomas M. Stockwell is the Editor in Chief of MC Press, LLC. He has written extensively about program development, project management, IT management, and IT consulting and has been a frequent contributor to many midrange periodicals. He has authored numerous white papers for iSeries solutions providers. His most recent consulting assignments have been as a Senior Industry Analyst working with IBM on the iSeries, on the mid-market, and specifically on WebSphere brand positioning. He welcomes your comments about this or other articles and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Thomas Stockwell

Thomas M. Stockwell is an independent IT analyst and writer. He is the former Editor in Chief of MC Press Online and Midrange Computing magazine and has over 20 years of experience as a programmer, systems engineer, IT director, industry analyst, author, speaker, consultant, and editor.  

 

Tom works from his home in the Napa Valley in California. He can be reached at ITincendiary.com.

 

 

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    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption

     

     

  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.