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Exchange alternative eases email storage management

A Linux-based alternative to Microsoft Exchange, called PostPath Server, has been certified by EMC Corp. for use with its Clariion disk arrays. PostPath Server is simplifying storage management and backups for organizations like the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System.

A Linux-based alternative to Microsoft Exchange that stores flat files rather than semistructured data has been making inroads with organizations looking for simpler ways to manage email storage.

EMC Corp. recently certified PostPath Server, a Linux-based enterprise-class email server from a startup named PostPath, for use with its Clariion disk arrays at the request of several large Clariion customers. One of those customers, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, is in the process of migrating from an Exchange 2000 system with direct-attached storage to PostPath with storage on a partition of the Clariion disk array.

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Appalachian Regional Healthcare System consists of Watauga Medical Center and Blowing Rock Hospital in Watauga County and Cannon Memorial Hospital in Avery Country. According to IT operations manager Wade Grimes, Appalachian Regional made the move because PostPath costs less and is easier to manage. "I've never managed Exchange with networked storage, but I know that EMC has whole training classes just for tuning Clariion for use with Exchange," he said. "Instead we're running PostPath on a Dell 1955 blade attached to our Clariion array. All we had to do was present the storage to the Red Hat [operating system], and it gets stored and replicated using MirrorView like all the other data on the array."

That last part would also be true of an Exchange environment, but the Microsoft Jet database that Exchange is based on can be finicky to manage. Jet still sometimes places data awkwardly on disk for retrieval, using sequential reads but random writes. PostPath's flat files are written sequentially and can be accessed faster than semistructured data. Using files also makes the system compatible with many different types of storage systems without complex reconfiguration. PostPath also supports Outlook and Active Directory.

Appalachian makes a second backup of email data to an offsite NAS server, using SMTP to archive data for HIPAA compliance. The combination of open-source protocols has saved the hospital thousands of dollars it might have otherwise paid for proprietary Exchange archiving systems. File-based backups also make it easier to restore individual mailboxes or message objects. PostPath is managed either through a Web portal or command-line interface.

"The only thing is, you have to have a good Linux base among your IT staff," Grimes said. "Luckily, we have a lot of Linux talent here." More Windows-centric data centers might not be in the same boat.

According to Grimes, the hospitals had previously tried a similar deployment with another open-source Exchange alternative called Postfix. But Postfix lacked Active Directory and Outlook integration. The Active Directory issue was the deal-breaker for the hospital, according to Grimes. "It meant our password management wasn't synched, and we didn't have the same level of control over management of the system," he said.

Appalachian Regional sought an alternative to Exchange because Grimes said it would have run more than $250,000 for Exchange licenses for 2,000 email accounts at the consortium of hospitals, clinics and other healthcare sites stretching across Kentucky and West Virginia. Because the healthcare system had already decided to install Clariion systems for other purposes, that cost was not factored in with the cost of PostPath . With the disk array cost excluded, the email and archiving system cost $47,000.

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