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Avoid costly errors with e-mail archival

A couple years back, the practice at my old company was to use .pst files for everyone in sales and marketing. Sounds like a great plan, but it's not without its problems.

A couple years back, the practice at my old company was to use .pst files for everyone in sales and marketing. The reasoning went something like this: because we travel a lot, we need offline access to our e-mail, and by storing our e-mail locally, we are not restricted by mailbox quotas. Microsoft Outlook was configured to transfer all incoming mail from the Microsoft Exchange Server inbox to the inbox in my personal folder residing in a .pst file.

This simple scenario sounds great: IT gets messages off of the Exchange Server and end users get offline e-mail access and unlimited storage. But this practice is not without some serious problems. For example, what happens when a laptop is stolen? Who is protecting the valuable company information contained in e-mail? How large can .pst files become?

To prevent lost data, the .pst file needs to be protected. This can be done locally using removable media or by copying the .pst file to a network server. Most organizations provide network file servers to their end users. A majority of end users have found it very useful to drag-and-drop their .pst file to a network file server for protection.

Protecting .pst files from corruption is another matter. The size of the .pst file directly increases the chances for corruption. The recommended size limit varies with the version of Exchange, but the size is generally in the 250 MB – 500 MB range.

But what happens when your company receives a subpoena for all the company e-mail? Are you able to search and retrieve e-mail for all your end users? The major difficulty with using .pst files is that this method spreads company e-mail across every PC in the organization and can only be accessed one machine at a time. The hard cost to search and retrieve e-mail in this situation can easily run into the millions of dollars.

To avoid this costly error, let's examine why .pst files were used to begin with. The first reason was to reduce the e-mail storage burden on Exchange. The second was to allow offline access and not have to enforce e-mail quotas. Exchange cannot store all e-mail forever; it simply does not have the capacity. But how can you provide more e-mail capacity and also provide offline access without using .pst files?

The solution to this dilemma is to use an e-mail archival application to accompany Exchange. E-mail archival is designed for scalability and can store years and years worth of messages and attachments. Using simple policies, messages and attachments can be removed from Exchange and replaced with small "short-cuts," resulting in a dramatic reduction in the storage burden on Exchange.

End users can continue to use their familiar e-mail clients to access messages, and they can store e-mail for as long as they wish. End users can optionally use .pst files to keep local copies of messages already stored in the e-mail archive for offline access. But these files only contain copies of archived messages; if they are lost or stolen, they can be easily replaced.

Should your company receive a subpoena for all its company e-mail, you can respond confidently with a solution that provides full-text search and retrieval. Working locally or remotely, investigators can log into the e-mail archive and search all company e-mail. This avoids the very costly and almost impossible task of searching every desktop machine in the organization.

By replacing the common practice of using .pst files with an e-mail archival solution, all valuable company e-mail can be centrally managed and protected. Any requests to search company e-mail can be handled quickly and easily without suffering an enormous cost. Company e-mail is far too valuable to be left unmanaged and widely distributed. Better practice is to centrally store all company e-mail in an e-mail archive and enjoy the benefits of reduced compliance risk, increased user productivity and decreased e-mail server storage costs.

About the author: Bob Spurzem is senior product marketing manager at Mimosa Systems Inc.

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