Email archiving FAQ

Stephen Foskett, director of data practice with Contoural, discusses the email archiving market today, the pros and cons of email archiving services, common email archiving mistakes and more. His answers are also available as an MP3.

Stephen Foskett, director of data practice with Contoural, discusses the email archiving market today, the pros and cons of email archiving services, common email archiving mistakes and more. His answers are also available below as an MP3.

Table of contents:

>>Getting started with email archiving
>>Backing up email servers
>>In-house email archiving system vs. a hosted system?
>>In-house email archiving considerations
>>Major players in the hosted email archiving space
>>Email archiving bandwidth requirements

What's the biggest mistake you see small to midsized businesses (SMBs) make when getting started with email archiving?

I think the biggest mistake that any business is making, but especially a smaller business, is not thinking about archiving as an integrated business activity. Instead, they're thinking of it as something you buy. Of course, you have to buy products to get archiving up and running, but at the end of the day, the real value of implementing an email archive comes not from what it is, but what you do with it.

So why do you buy archiving? Do you buy it for IT reasons, because you wanted to reduce the volume of email that you had to deal with in your email server? Or do you buy it to be able to search and discover email and produce it if the company gets sued? Or do you do it for productivity reasons, to help people better access and manage their email?

You have to ask these questions and think about them in terms of which products you are going to select, because some products are just naturally better at one thing than the other. Some of them are really focused on the IT solution, some are really focused on the legal solution and some are in between, just helping general productivity. The biggest mistake companies make is just going out and buying something they think will work -- usually from an IT perspective -- then coming home and finding out it doesn't meet the expectations of the people in the rest of the company.

What is the difference between backing up your email servers and an email archive?

This question points to one of the big disconnects between best practices and actual real-world implementation. Backup is intended to help you to get back to where you were on a short-term basis. Backup applications are optimized for that role, and they do a great job of it.

If you take a look at the latest backup applications, with all of the wonderful features -- integration with storage systems, integration with server virtualization, excellent categorization and CDP -- it's really all designed to help you get things back up and running quickly, easily and granularly. Now, archiving is basically a completely different thing. Archiving is historic retention, to enable down the road ways to get back to your data.

Now that role can be served by similar hardware and even software. But if you're trying to use an off-the-shelf data protection system as an archive, you're going to run into some problems. The index isn't going to last long enough and it might not be appropriate for legal retention.

For example, if you were trying to hold a bed of email messages for a lawsuit and yet you were using a daily backup to do so, anything that happened during the day was probably missed. It's just a really poor way to protect information for legal holds. You need archiving just to clear stuff out of the email system. Then an archiving application that does that, maybe one that implements stubbing, is going to be a great match for your needs and is not a backup system.

Similarly, if you need litigation hold and e-discovery support, another email discovery system that supports journaling is going to be a great match for your needs and is not a backup system. The important thing to note here is that no matter what you're trying to do with email archiving, a backup system is not going to get you there. You really need a real email archiving system in order to get a good solution.

For an SMB, what are the advantages and disadvantages of an in-house email archiving system vs. a hosted system?

There are a lot of pros and cons for both at all business sizes. But SMBs tend to be more price and administration sensitive. In other words, if you are a company that has an annual IT budget from $10,000 to $100,000, you simply can not go out and buy an email archiving system that costs a million. It's just not going to happen.

Similarly, if you're an IT organization that has three or five or eight people, you're not going to have the manpower and the resources to effectively implement email archiving, which is admittedly fairly tricky to get right. Really, you need to think about how you are going to be able to balance your financial abilities and your staffing abilities with your needs.

For a lot of people, especially in the SMB market, an outsourced solution is a way to meet the needs without having to hire another person or spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more than you needed. A lot of the time, these outsourced solutions can be bought on a pay-as-you go basis where you pay per user, per mailbox, per gigabyte or per month. A lot of them have low or even or no setup fees, which again, is another big concern. If you have to go out and buy a whole bunch of hardware and software just to get started, then it's going to be really difficult to get approval for that. Whereas if you can just put it in as an operational expense that is growing over time, it is much easier to get approved.

But of course, it does grow over time. Once you make the transition from being a small business to a midsized business, companies start asking themselves if this is really what they want to spend there money on. It's easy to see this as money going down the drain, which of course it's not because you're probably getting an effective solution. You're continually putting money in there every single month and it might not be a highly visible return you're getting. So a lot of folks as they get bigger start thinking about in-house archiving.

The ironic thing is that the very biggest companies are eagerly and actively outsourcing this function. So even the ones that could afford to buy their own hardware and software and staff with a dozen people, a lot of them are really interested in outsourcing, too.

So a managed service is not necessarily just a small business or a big business solution, it is a potential solution for anybody that doesn't feel like this is something that they want to invest in. Whereas an in-house solution is exactly the opposite, where you have the staff and you have the money and you say this is not something that I want to pour money into every month. You want to be able to buy something, get it up and running and own it.

While those are really the main considerations, there are others, such as security. But most people find it comes down to money and power.

What should you consider before doing email archiving in-house?

Before going in-house, the first thing to consider is if you have the tolerance to build the thing. In most cases, it is pretty easy to get the software up and running. It could take weeks or months, but it probably won't take years to get some storage, some servers and a new archiving application up and running. Similarly, it's not going to take all that long to pick one.

There are a lot of choices and a lot of them are pretty good, so it's just a matter of going out there and picking one. The real problem lies in what you are going to do with this and how you are going to make it work for you. Unless you're just doing it for IT storage-reduction purposes, in which case you can pretty much implement an out-of-the box solution.

If there is any business or legal requirements for archiving, you're suddenly going to have to start thinking about what IT needs in terms of legal holds, what is the policy for records retention and how do I apply that with this particular archiving solution that I have? That can be real hard to match up. It can be very difficult to match up the expectations of legalities with the reality of the software. And of course, it can change.

I like to make the joke that you don't have a policy for retaining envelopes in cardboard boxes; you have a policy for retaining documents that are in the envelope. Similarly, you can't have a generic one-size-fits-all legal retention policy for email, because email is just a mechanism, a way of getting information from me to you. The important question is what is that information? Is it something you need to hold, or is just an invitation to lunch? Which is something you want to keep, but most people wouldn't classify that as an important business document. Where if it was an invitation to go to lunch to talk about how you're going to get sued, then that is a real important business document.

So all of these things can add up and they can really end up creating a road block to the implementation of an email archiving solution. No matter what solution you're looking at, whether it's an in-house solution or a managed hosted solution, the critical thing is to get it up and running. You're going to have a year to pour emails into it before you have to start thinking about what you are going to delete.

So if you have any inkling at all that email archiving is going to be required for business or legal reasons, just get it running. Go out there and get a system, get it up and running and then think of getting people together and coming up with policies and making sure that the solution is meeting everyone's needs. Because the retention is really the critical thing and if you're not retaining emails, then you're exposed.

Who are the major players in the hosted email archiving space?

Certainly most hosting providers have their own hosting solution. Nearly every data center provider that I've met with has a host solution based on one of the in-house solutions you might buy. For example, if you're really keen on buying Symantec Corp. or Mimosa Systems Inc., it's pretty likely that you'll find a service provider that is offering that solution as a managed service. The first thing to do would be to look at your current business partners for hosting services and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised that they have an email archiving solution that they can roll out pretty quickly.

The next step would be to look at more of the dedicated service providers. Of them, Zantaz (now owned by Autonomy Corp.) is the one that comes to mind immediately because they have built an entire hardware/software solution around hosted/managed service email archiving. They of course also offer products in-house, but they come immediately to mind when you mention email archiving.

There are a lot of other options as well. There are a lot of smaller companies that have their own solution, which is not someone else's solution that they just rolled out in their data center. And there a lot of niche products that focus, for example, on the financial services industry.

Then there are the big guys, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. All of them offer hosted email archiving as a managed service and all of them have pretty compelling products and prices. As they do for so many other internet outsourced applications. Those are really the ones that I would start with. Think about if there is a potential with your current hosted provider. Then think about whether you need a specialist or if you need more a general application like Zantaz. Then think about the big guys in the industry and whether they can do what you need.

Does hosted email archiving require significant bandwidth?

As a rule, yes, but they probably won't require any more bandwidth than a disaster recovery or a managed service backup would. They are going to require a lot bandwidth. The reason why people want to archive email and reduce email storage is because it is such a big user of capacity and capacity equals throughput. If you're sending around multi-megabyte files, all of that stuff is going to have to go over the wire to a hosted provider or a managed service. So that is of course a big concern, the amount of bandwidth you are going to need.

You can mitigate that in a number of ways; first, by going with your current hosting provider. In a lot of cases, you might have hosted email already and your provider might be able to do email archiving for you right there and the bandwidth would be negligible. Or, you may find that you have other applications and other connectivity options already in place that you can leverage with those hosting providers.

For the big guys, they're relying on just internet connectivity. So it's just a question of talking to your connectivity provider and dialing up your internet speed.

Finally, there are a lot options out there that are technical solutions for this problem, that apply capabilities like data deduplication and compression to reduce the amount of bandwidth required. So the real specialist applications for email archiving, like Zantaz, are going to have an onsite component and an offsite component. The onsite component is going to reduce your bandwidth significantly by applying principles like deduplication to it as a way to both reduce your bandwidth requirements and to accelerate the service.

So they do some caching and acceleration, so it's not always going out over the internet to get everything. There are a lot of ways that you can mitigate it. You can look at trying to keep it local or near your email server; you can try to go with just a generic provider and bulk up on the bandwidth. Or you can try to get something that is really tuned to mitigate the bandwidth problem.

Stephen Foskett is the director of data practice with Contoural.

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