Cisco is wheeling out three flavours of email security services, the first of a series of hosted security services the company plans to announce.

Customers can chose to have the service entirely hosted in a Cisco data centre, managed using Cisco Ironport gear installed at customer sites, or a hybrid of the two. 

For the hosted option, each customer will have dedicated infrastructure on either its own hardware or virtual machine as well as individual backup. If trouble arises with one customer's email, it won't spread to another's, Cisco says.

Other providers offering hosted security services include Google with its Postini purchase, MX Logic, McAfee, WebSense and Webroot.

Cisco will offer service-level agreements related to uptime. Customers will have access to a management platform with all the features they would have if they bought their own Cisco email security appliance. These appliances protect against spam, viruses and blended threats.

"This is more of a toe in the water for Cisco than a big splash," says Arabella Hallawell, an analyst for Gartner. Initially just the managed device service is available, with dedicated gear managed in an Cisco data center coming later. She says it is not a traditional software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering because such services are marked by shared infrastructure in a multi-tenant environment.

Established email security SaaS vendors such as Google, Microsoft and Message Labs (Symantec) deal with inbound mail, and don't do outbound as well, Hallawell says. "When Cisco has its dedicated/hosted service running, some oganisations will buy it, but it depends on the price," she says.

The on-premise service consists of appliances at customer sites that are managed remotely by Cisco.

The hybrid version includes an on-site appliance that could handle, for example, encryption if a company is concerned about data-loss prevention, but that is scanned in the cloud for viruses. The customer management interface for this service makes it appear as if all the protections are delivered by a single device.

All three service options are billed based on a price per user per year, which is based on a premium above the cost of an appliance. Pricing depends on which security services customers subscribe to, the term of the contract and the number of users. Antivirus plus antispam for more than 5,000 users with a three-year contract costs $12 (£8.50) per user per year, for example.

The email security services will become available in April. Cisco says it plans other services but not before the end of the year.