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Morgan Stanley feels e-mail archiving pain

Slapped with a $15 million fine for failing to turn over e-mail records, Morgan Stanley faces the difficult task of building a digital e-mail archive that meets regulatory approval.

Morgan Stanley has agreed to pay a record $15 million fine to settle a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) probe into its failure to preserve e-mails, according to a 10-K filing with the SEC this week. Reports indicate this is the highest fine ever imposed by the SEC for such behavior.

A spokesman for Morgan Stanley expressed the company's frustration at creating a digital e-mail archive from thousands of tapes. "How do you get it into the database?" he asked. It's clearly not an easy process. The company refused to divulge any details about its e-mail archiving technology.

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The case against Morgan Stanley hit the headlines last May when the firm couldn't guarantee it had turned over all e-mails related to a pending lawsuit -- and got hit with a $1.58 billion judgment. The expensive rulings point to a major problem: Most companies can't comply with a broad legal discovery order because they don't archive electronic content in such a way that it can be searched and retrieved in a timely manner.

"Technology purchased three years ago [for archiving e-mail] is already failing to live up to the expectations of the SEC," said Alan Brooks, vice president of marketing at Renew Data Corp. First-generation e-mail archiving systems are like "roach motels," he said. "Information goes in but doesn't come out again." According to Brooks, e-mail archiving systems are being treated as IT projects, when it should be a legal project aligned with IT.

Renew Data claims to have around 50 customers, mostly financial services companies, using its e-mail archiving product that it says archives data so that it can be managed as evidence. Its largest archive has 2.6 billion e-mail messages in it, and represents 350 terabytes (TB) of data on tape. This was compressed to 22 TB and restored on EMC Corp. Clariion disk. The process took six months.

Eric Linxweiler, vice president and consultant at Logicalis Inc., says organizations can do even more harm "by not implementing the technology correctly" and claims that a good deal of Logicalis' business right now is consulting with companies on fixing earlier implementations.

Similarly, T.M. Ravi, president and CEO of Mimosa Systems Inc., has found that organizations are unnecessarily re-engineering production e-mail systems in order to create an archive. "The impact [of this approach] is so high that it takes a long time to implement," he said.

Some high-profile executives and government officials are so paranoid about e-mail trails coming back to bite them that they have given up using e-mail altogether. "Never write when you can talk. Never talk when you can nod. And never put anything in an e-mail," said Eliot Spitzer, New York state attorney general, in an interview with Business 2.0 last year. Likewise, George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales have stated that their e-mail would be considered of public record and as a consequence, have sworn off using it completely. According to well-documented reports, Bush has not sent a single e-mail since his inauguration in 2001.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the option to disregard a global communications medium quite so easily. For those who don't, analysts say that a more cautious and thoughtful approach to e-mail retention, and deletion, is the way ahead.

IDC forecasts e-mail archiving revenue growing from $310 million last year to $850 million by 2009. The firm also expects that as laws become more severe, organizations will handle more e-mail archiving in-house rather than through services.

According to the 10-K filing, Morgan Stanley's $15 million fine still requires the approval of the SEC's Division of Enforcement.

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