E-mail: It's worse than you think


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Is an E-mail SAN Right for You?

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Most people who want high availability will implement a SAN of some sort. But according to Bill Huber, CTO of storage area network (SAN) hardware company StoneFly, e-mail seldom makes the grade. "Fibre Channel costs too much. You'd use it for SQL, but for e-mail? It's kind of mission-critical--but do I really want to spend $150,000 to get started?"

Instead, Huber and others advocate deploying an IP-based SAN. If you want to keep e-mail online and available, ultimately you don't have that many attractive alternatives. You can simply add storage to the e-mail server as messages grow, but at a certain point, you'll need to upgrade the server--or add an external storage array. Eventually, you'll end up with multiple servers and multiple arrays, which is not only tough to manage but also wasteful, because the storage isn't shared.

Deploying an IP-based e-mail SAN gives e-mail what it craves: more-or-less infinite storage space. And it can be done relatively cheaply.

Huber suggests that you might not even need fancy iSCSI acceleration hardware to enjoy good performance. "In my experience, Exchange is really good at cache management. Its disk I/O load on the back end is cached and buffered and you can run quite a lot of users--I've run benchmarks with 2,000 simulated users--and the I/O load is really pretty light."

Huber says that most people just set up a separate switch to create a modest, dedicated e-mail SAN, rather than tapping into an existing Ethernet network. But even if you were to do that, security wouldn't be much of an issue. "Ethernet is point to point and addressed, so it's not like hubs, where the traffic is just leaking out into the ether," he says.

Like everything else, the cost of hardware related to SANs is headed south. E-mail is worth putting on its own SAN, but only if you take advantage of the plummeting prices to put one together on the cheap.

Revulsion reached a new level when George discovered that spammers were simply locking onto his domain and blasting away, on several occasions nailing his server with thousands of e-mails per day from one spammer. "The tipping point," he says, "came one morning when I was deleting maybe 600 or 700 dead e-mails from the server that had arrived since last night." On further investigation, he says, he discovered that people who had been on the staff for a while and had older e-mail addresses were getting approximately 75 spam e-mails per day.

Yet a quandary presented itself: How do you deploy an effective spam filter for a business that relies so heavily on open communication? Thanks to a tip from a contractor who helps maintain George's servers, he discovered Purepath, an antispam product for Lotus mail servers from Canadian startup Team Technologies. George installed the product on his server just last March.

"Purepath has been great for us because it doesn't use just one technology. It's primarily blacklist-based, but allows you to select any number of blacklists you want," he says. You can even block entire countries: "I turned off North and South Korea," he says, "just because we do no business with those countries, and there's a huge percentage of spam that comes out of them." But it's the various rules and heuristics that you can add on top of blacklists that make Purepath "incredibly smart," says George.

The problem, of course, is the risk of it being too protective and blocking e-mails that should get through. "I've been cautious about implementing things as we go along," says George, who says Purepath's options are "tricked out" to the degree that along with merely bouncing obvious spam, you can review suspect e-mails and sort them into various folders according to specific criteria. But that's exactly what he doesn't want to do--spin cycles reviewing spam. So George has dialed back the rules. As the system is configured now, about five spam e-mails per day get through to each user and, as far as he can determine, there are no false positives.

George is first to admit that no solution is perfect, including his own. "Spam may escalate to the point where the way we use e-mail might be completely different," he says, "because of all the different technologies that are out there to combat spam." Not long from now, George speculates, something like a return receipt may have to become part of standard e-mail procedure. "People just assume today that when they press 'send,' their e-mail will miraculously appear at its destination. We may not be able to take it for granted anymore." Reports George has generated since deploying Purepath bear witness to a truly alarming spam crisis: a fourfold increase in the number of junk e-mails trying to penetrate his defenses in only three months.

The content is in the mail
There's the junk--and then there's the stuff with hidden value. Studies show that much of the average enterprise's intellectual capital is bound up in e-mail messages, though attempts to quantify e-mail's importance amount to pure speculation. The point is this: Everybody hangs on to e-mails that contain unique information critical to their job, and is almost never shared with others.

"It's unstructured data that really hasn't been tapped into," says Joe Fisher, director of product management for Tumbleweed Communications, a Redwood City, CA, e-mail management software company. "If you think about it, a lot of the communications are happening between the organization and its customer base. I mean, here you have communication and conversations with your most valuable asset, your customers. And there might be some really good nuggets in there, whether it's for figuring out how to tailor marketing programs or whether it's how to improve support programs or add new products. You can let other systems around e-mail query the archive and pull information out, whether it's for business process automation or for streamlining marketing programs."

For companies struggling to make nightly e-mail backups more efficient, meta-tagging e-mails and hooking them into a content or document management system sounds pretty far-fetched. It requires the creation of a reasonably high-performance archival repository where old e-mails never die, and it requires you to meta-tag messages based on their content, using software such as Tumbleweed's Messaging Management System or TrueArc, which was acquired late last year by content management software vendor Documentum. Another example: Lotus Domino e-mails archived with IBM's CommonStore can be accessed via IBM's Content Manager software.

Now that e-mail has scared everyone with its potential liability, it's only a matter of time before added investment in e-mail management builds business-side pressure for IT to squeeze more value out of messages. Mike Gundling, VP of product management for e-mail management software vendor iLumin, thinks that giving e-mail that kind of status is a way of recognizing what's already happening. Says Gundling: "Everything is flying around in e-mail."

This was first published in August 2003

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