Who’s minding the message store?

By Michele Hope

Storage professionals are fairly comfortable in the world of backups, remote replication, off-site disaster recovery, and disk-based restore. However, comfort levels tend to drop as talk turns to the company’s e-mail management and archiving strategy.

Everyone knows that the message store, left unchecked, can quickly morph into something too large to manage. Yet the issue of e-mail management is not just a storage problem. If it were, most IT organizations would be comfortable just adding more capacity and possibly archiving older e-mail messages onto lower-cost storage devices.

E-mail archiving software exists today to enable this type of functionality. The top of most analysts’ lists include EMC EmailXtender, Zantaz EAS, Symantec EnterpriseVault, the Open Text LiveLink for e-mail suite, and iLumin Assentor Enterprise suite (acquired by Computer Associates), to name just a few of the growing breed of e-mail-related archival products.

Research also shows that many IT organizations have already begun to embrace this type of functionality. A recent survey commissioned by BridgeHead Technologies, a storage management and archiving vendor, reported 66% of IT organizations were already using software to perform some form of e-mail archiving (see figure).

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But despite the headway being made by IT, most storage professionals concede the answer to effective e-mail management goes well beyond just adding more storage. Today, IT professionals are being asked to join forces with their company’s legal department, compliance officer, records managers, and HR personnel in an attempt to define the policies, procedures, and underlying technology surrounding the proper management and disposition of e-mail.

The politics of e-mail management

Most e-mail archiving vendors claim that the prospect of litigation, and the need to produce e-mails in accordance with legal discovery requests, has become a bigger driver than regulatory compliance for most companies interested in e-mail archiving. According to Stewart Noyce, senior manager of product marketing for EMC’s Email-Xtender, industries with a high-risk profile for litigation, such as insurance, may require IT groups to process as many as two to three new requests for legal discovery each day.

“They may have more than 1,000 incidents a year,” says Noyce. “In a typical, large-scale insurance organization, they take on the risk, but must also manage the cost of that risk [which includes litigation].”

That’s one big reason other groups outside of IT are also getting into the act and may even spearhead e-mail management or archiving initiatives.

“The people who make the choices about e-mail management and archiving solutions are usually the CFO and compliance manager, the IT people, or the records managers,” says Jens Rabe, director of compliance solutions at Open Text, a content management vendor that offers its LiveLink solutions for e-mail management and archiving.

Other vendors make a somewhat different distinction between the groups interested in e-mail archiving. According to Nick Mehta, senior director of product management at Symantec (which offers Veritas Enterprise Vault e-mail archiving and management software), the interest in e-mail archiving often centers on one of four drivers:

  • Storage optimization: Typically led by storage managers trying to control the growth of unstructured files and e-mail.
  • E-mail optimization: Usually led by e-mail administrators responding to users’ need to retain e-mail for longer periods, but wanting a smarter way to manage the process than instituting quotas or managing separate PST files.
  • Retention and discovery of e-mail: Led by the legal department with an initiative to retain e-mail so that it can be quickly produced in response to legal discovery requests.
  • Compliance: Led by a compliance officer interested in ensuring e-mail is retained and able to be produced to internal or external auditors in accordance with regulations.

“E-mail, storage, legal, and compliance administrators all have to work together,” says Mehta. “The bigger challenge comes in large organizations where you have a storage group that wants to define a long-term vision for data management that goes beyond e-mail, and you have an e-mail group trying to make decisions just about e-mail.”

Different angles

How each group comes at the issue of e-mail archiving and management is very different. IT teams may want to lighten the IT management burden by offloading a large portion of the primary e-mail store to a searchable archive located on a secondary storage system. Most archiving products allow the end user’s experience to remain relatively unchanged and may put a stub or placeholder icon in the user’s in-box next to an archived e-mail, which allows the user to retain access to the e-mail.

IT groups are also interested in features that let them perform rapid recovery of complete message stores, as well as recovery of individual user mailboxes. Many are also interested in solutions that allow users to perform their own e-mail recovery.

According to Open Text’s Rabe, compliance officers or records management personnel see e-mail archiving systems completely differently-as one that processes documents. “They are not as interested in how the technical problems are solved, but want to make sure there is a mechanism inside e-mail clients to differentiate the important from the unimportant,” says Rabe. They are more concerned about how easily they can apply retention holds to key e-mail, or how easy it is to index, search, or classify e-mail contents. This is also where issues arise around how best to locate, search, or archive the contents of various PST files scattered around the network.

Rabe categorizes the various philosophies toward e-mail management as the difference between a top-down, business process-centered approach and a bottom-up approach that focuses more on infrastructure, speeds, and feeds. “Sometimes there’s a battle between records management and compliance officers. While this is going on, IT can slip in the door and say, ‘Let’s start with archiving right away, and then you can figure out these other issues later,’ ” Rabe explains.

That’s akin to building an “infinite mailbox,” he says, and will likely exacerbate the problem later. “If you store e-mail for 10 years, who makes the call about whether or not the e-mail needs to be thrown away?”

Proactive versus reactive

“Storage people think storage. That’s the reason you can have reactive decisions of either ‘Let’s get rid of everything or let’s keep everything.’ Neither of those approaches is prudent,” says Randolph Kahn, founder of Kahn Consulting, an information management and IT compliance consulting firm, and author of Information Nation Warrior.

Kahn claims organizations need to make sure that records preservation and retention issues are spelled out first, before deciding on a specific technology fix. “Our approach is to develop simple rules that a limited number of employees can apply and use on-the-fly. These make sure that the preservation and retention issues are addressed while being mindful of storage complexities and expenses,” says Kahn.

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For example, a policy could be developed that identifies when an e-mail rises to the level of being considered a record based on its ongoing legal, compliance, operational, or historic value. Once it’s deemed a record, only the recipient of that e-mail is required to take some action for retention purposes. “That means if an e-mail has one recipient and 49 others who were copied, those 49 people don’t have to retain the copy unless they are required to take some action pursuant to it,” says Kahn. “We also tell employees that [they] do not need to retain it [and] they also need to get rid of it immediately when it’s no longer of value to [them].”

Kahn maintains these types of simple rules allow users to code e-mail in three seconds or less and are more likely to be followed. From a storage perspective, they can also help achieve the combined result of limiting the storage burden while addressing the company’s responsibilities toward preservation and retention.

Short-term vs. long-term

There is still some dispute among vendors about whether it makes sense to wait to deploy e-mail archiving until after the organization has figured out a more sustainable long-term strategy. While all agree that a long-term strategy is better, some say IT can’t just sit idle on the issue of e-mail management and wait for the organization to mature in its knowledge of the best e-mail retention approach.

“Some companies would rather not implement a system until they have their entire records management strategy identified, so they can apply different retention periods to different things, like a message from finance vs. a lunch invitation,” says Roger Erickson, CTO of Zantaz, an archiving and management software vendor that offers archiving and compliance solutions, along with off-site management services for e-mail. “Very few companies are prepared to roll out an enterprise-wide message categorization and retention program. Most companies realize that using an archive system doesn’t lock them into anything, but it does give them the ability to see what they have.”

Solving immediate problems, like those surrounding e-mail discovery, is a strong driver for immediate action. “A lot of organizations want to search and index the contents of their PST and EML files,” says Mike Marchi, vice president of solutions marketing at Kazeon Systems, which offers an Information Server appliance to help companies locate, index, and manage their unstructured file information. “This is driven more by the legal department, which wants to find all content that is sitting outside of the Exchange databases.”

Users are also making more immediate demands for searchability of their own e-mail stores. T.M. Ravi, president and CEO of Mimosa Systems, attributes this to what he calls the “Google effect.” Mimosa offers an e-mail management, archiving, and disaster-recovery solution for users of Microsoft Exchange. Ravi claims users can now maintain-inexpensively or free-relatively large “super-sized” mailboxes from the commercial sector whose contents can be easily searched. This is moving them to now request the same functionality as their corporate e-mail accounts.

Erickson continues: “The naysayers who say creating an archive doesn’t solve all the problems are right, but it still solves a lot of the operational problems, saves companies a ton of money, and puts them down the path of applying data classification on all messages that are archived.” Erickson claims that a key area of savings from archiving solutions comes from the ability to de-duplicate (often referred to as single-instance storage) and compress e-mail messages. This process alone can account for as much as 70% to 80% storage savings in a typical e-mail environment.

Advice for IT

According to Rabe, IT administrators who hear of all these competing drivers and interests around e-mail may have a tendency to offload the problem to another group in the company responsible for coming up with e-mail requirements before they try to tackle the infrastructure.

“Because it’s a business problem, it should be driven to a certain extent by business people who refer to IT as required,” says Sue Clarke, a senior research analyst at the Butler Group, which has produced recent reports on e-mail management. “You have to look at the justification for implementing e-mail archiving from a business, compliance, or litigation perspective and see it from the perspective of potential risk.”

From an IT perspective, Rabe believes that someone in IT needs to be adventurous enough to take on the e-mail issue and spearhead discussion with other groups in the company. Symantec’s Mehta puts it another way: “The challenge for storage and e-mail administrators is for them to get educated enough on these other areas and understand the other factors that play into it. Then, translate that into business requirements.”

Michele Hope is a freelance writer and can be contacted at mhope@thestoragewriter.com.

This article was originally published on February 01, 2006