December 14, 1998

Sharing Software, IBM to Release Mail Program Blueprint


Adding momentum to the open-source movement for the free sharing of software, IBM plans Monday to make available the original programmer's instructions for a new mail program that can be used to store and forward e-mail messages with a high level of security.

The program, Secure Mailer, serves as an electronic post office for server computers connected to the Internet. It was developed by Wietse Venema, an IBM researcher and computer security specialist. Executives said they were using the free, open-source model of software distribution to insure that the program would be widely available on the dozens of kinds of computers that are used to route Internet mail traffic.

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The open source model of software development, pioneered by a loosely affiliated group of expert programmers, is built on universal sharing of the programmer's original written instructions to the computer. In traditional, proprietary development models, those instructions are hidden because they have been compiled into the binary 1s and 0s that computers understand.

The open-source model has been gaining popularity in the last year based on the success of the free Linux operating system, and in recent months several major technology corporations have endorsed part or all of the idea.

"This is IBM's Christmas present to the Internet," said Abner Germanow, a computer security analyst at the International Data Corp., a market research firm. "For these are core pieces of software, and we're going beyond trying to make money off of them, to the idea that by freely sharing them it will make the world a better place."

Like many big companies, the International Business Machines Corp. seems to be cautiously feeling its way toward an open-source strategy. Secure Mailer follows by just a week the company's release of the source code for a compiler, the tool used by software developers to transform instructions written in a programming language into the computer's binary machine code.

In addition, IBM is making its software compatible with Apache, a popular open-source Web server program, and earlier this year it announced plans to make a version of its DB2 relational data base program available for the open-source Linux operating system.

"We're still trying to understand exactly what open source means," said Paul Horn, vice president for research. "It obviously plays an important role where standards are critical, but what it means to IBM is still under formulation."

Secure Mailer offers an alternative to several other freely available programs that route Internet mail, including Sendmail and Q Mail, as well as to commercial programs like Microsoft's Exchange.

Currently about 70 percent of all e-mail worldwide is handled by Sendmail, a program that has been developed over more than a decade and supported by a programmer named Eric Allman and a loose group of colleagues. Recently, Allman started a company to develop a commercial version of the program.

IBM researchers said one of the drawbacks to Sendmail was that it had been written as a large, monolithic piece of software. As a result it has both performance and security limitations.

In contrast, Venema has developed Secure Mailer as a cluster of modules, all of which distrust each other. This creates a more secure program. The program could be compared to a ship that has many independent compartments and therefore is harder to sink, he said.

Charles Palmer, who manages a computer security research group at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Laboratory, said that enabling other programmers to look at all the original instructions written by the program's author would give them a high degree of confidence in the security of a program.

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