Sophos, which has long offered its anti-virus and anti-spam software to e-mail security appliance makers' wares, is now getting into the business itself.

The company has announced its first messaging security appliance, the ES4000. The new product features Sophos' own anti-virus and anti-spam software for inbound and outbound e-mail, which includes some outbound compliance filtering such as searching outgoing messages for keywords and blocking them, said Chris Kraft, Sophos' vice president of product management.

The company says the ES4000 is actually a hybrid approach to e-mail security, since it mixes the convenience of an appliance with the support of an outsourced service. Customers won't need to monitor or maintain the appliance, Craft said, since Sophos does that for them.

Through an Internet connection, Sophos staff remotely monitors the health of the hardware and alerts customers when, for example, a queue is filling up and might affect the performance of the unit, Craft says. And when a fix can be done remotely, Sophos's staff will alert the customer to the situation and perform the maintenance.

Sophos believes this remote monitoring and maintenance will make the ES4000 a good choice for companies that want relief from the headache of managing their own appliances, but still want to be able to keep their e-mail in house.

The 20-year-old, privately held company has a long legacy in the anti-virus market, and more recently the anti-spam market as well, with its Unix-based gateway offerings.

Companies including IronPort, Mirapoint, and Secure Computing resell one or both of Sophos' software offerings with their gateway appliances, and also sells Sophos' anti-virus and anti-spam software, called PureMessage, direct to customers. The company says 30 percent of companies running e-mail security appliances are already using its software.

However, Sophos maintains that with the release of its gateway appliance it isn't competing with its partners, since the company is the first to introduce this concept of a "managed appliance," Croft says.

One consultant doesn't necessarily agree, but doesn't believe this competition will hurt the company.

"Sophos certainly faces the risk of alienating those [appliance] partners, but with anti-virus and anti-spam becoming commoditised, it probably isn't going to hurt them that much," says Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research. "Any negative would be more than offset by increased sales," since most companies, especially small and mid-sized ones, are showing a preference to get their e-mail security via an appliance, he says.

The ES4000 is aimed at large organisations - those with between 1,000 and 5,000 users - that process millions of e-mail messages a day, and arrives preconfigured at the site based on customers' specifications. Pricing starts at US$9,000.

The company plans to release additional models of its e-mail gateway security appliance targeted at different sized organisations, Craft said.