The weakest link in messaging: The votes are in!

What are the weakest links in corporate messaging systems? In a searchWindowsManageability survey, IT pros finger the guilty parties and products.

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Barbra Streisand's famous song in Funny Girl was wrong: People who need people are NOT the luckiest people in the world. In fact, when it comes to messaging systems, people are the flies in the ointment. Yes, people are the WEAKEST LINK!

It's not just the users who muck up enterprise messaging systems, IT pros said. When searchWindowsManageability asked users to tell us what the weakest link is in their messaging system, the majority of respondents pointed the finger at corporate bean counters and executives. The frustrations of dealing with misguided executive directives and unrealistic budgets overshadow any technical problems in messaging systems, according to IT managers.

Of course, there are weak links in messaging technologies. In this story, our users lambaste the people and product foibles that foul up messaging systems. For obvious reasons, most of the 25-plus users who offered their opinions preferred to remain anonymous.

THE USERS

In general, users just don't follow directions, according to IT managers. The most common weakest link: Users open attachments from strangers, even though they've been told that these attachments could contain viruses.

"Encouraging people to use best practices and self manage is a real challenge," said IT professional Stephen Bruce.

No wonder IT managers are cynical about users. They often do weird things. For example, one IT manager was called in when a user couldn't open Lotus Notes on her desktop. It turned out that the user had removed the Data Folder, the place where much of Notes' functionality resides. "Very definitely, the weak point on our messaging system is the user," he said.

THE EXECUTIVES

Too often, systems administrators said, IT departments' daily lives and technology decisions are controlled by or have to be approved by upper-level executives. Usually, these execs don't know diddlysquat about enterprise computing technologies or the people who manage them.

Many corporations require IT departments to get upper management's approval for changes in or purchases for IT systems. Often, the result is that well-recognized brand name solutions get management approval, while the little-known, but better, solutions favored by the IT group get rejected. Decisions are made based on what management is familiar with, "rather than on a thorough comparative analysis," said Jen Day, Network Administrator for Bellingham, Wash.-based North Coast Credit Union. "Better the devil you know, they reason, than the devil you don't."

Personnel issues arise when non-IT executives control job assignments, too. "Our weakest link now seems to be the management belief that all programmers on all projects are interchangeable," said one systems administrator. In this organization, programmers are reassigned to new projects willy-nilly, without recognition of the fact that they may not be trained in the programming language or applications involved. No training is offered, either. "The work slowdown that has followed is attributed to people being unhappy with new assignments, which can be solved with heavy disciplinary action," the administrator said.

THE BEAN COUNTERS

"Short-sighted thinking" is common among the managers who hold the IT departments' purse strings, said Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer Randy Grein, Master CNE. A common management attitude is that "networking should be like plumbing; installed once and ignored," he said. Then, those same executives are surprised when "the pipes seem to break on a weekly schedule."

The most common consequences of short-sighted budgeting are the failure to do capacity planning, to create adequate backup systems, and to make a disaster recovery plan, according to IT managers. These systems and processes are given short shrift and are rarely implemented or maintained well, Grein said.

"The weakest link in our messaging system is mostly one of growth and expansion needs versus budget," said Day. Due to budget restrictions, an upgrade from Microsoft Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000 has been delayed. "Funds to upgrade are strictly controlled, and IT must make the best of every buck we get," she said.

In the meantime, Day's users want to keep more and more mail. "It's not uncommon for senior management and IT to have mailboxes well over 100MB," Day said. "The system is now at the point where we see obvious delays in mail delivery, scheduled events occur late or not at all, users can't have the storage space they want, and forms deployment is slowed by the systems inability to handle the transactions in a timely manner."

SECURITY WEAKNESSES IN EXCHANGE

Before we go on, let's issue a disclaimer: Almost all of the IT pros who responded to our weakest link query manage and use Windows-based systems. So, the fact that they only cited weaknesses in Microsoft's products is no surprise. If searchDomino.com did a similar poll, most of the input would probably relate to Notes.

That said, difficulties in securing Microsoft Exchange plagued the majority of contributors to this story. "If only Microsoft would bug-check its products to a more professional level before release," said one IT manager.

Grein believes that small businesses, which make up the lion's share of U.S. companies, need "simple, easy security." Most organizations can't afford to retain a full-time security officer. "Many don't even have a real administrator," he said. They're left vulnerable by "patch-of-the-week operating systems exposed to the Internet and viral protection that lags behind outbreaks by days or weeks."

"Too little, too late" is how an IT manager from a mid-sized company described messaging system security solutions available today. Security protection systems are always one step behind hackers. "Also, a problem with virus software is the signatures come out after the virus has hit all the users," said another IT pro.

There are "too many patches and not enough time," said a systems administrator in charge of running Exchange 5.5. She spends several hours a week researching and applying patches and is still behind.

Several IT managers agreed that Exchange is just too vulnerable to viruses. "Using a known viral carrier like Exchange for critical business functions is just not reasonable," said Grein. "Neither is pretending a critical resource (e-mail) is not" a mission-critical function.

MORE WEAK LINKS IN YOU-KNOW-WHAT

Votes for weakest links ranged from macro to micro. Typically, correspondents started with big issues, like users, budgets, and security. Then, they got down to the real nitty-gritty, citing irritating little weaknesses that are souring their marriage to Microsoft messaging systems. They've had trouble in automating mail forwarding, transferring files, remote synchronization and dealing with Exchange public folder replication.

Regarding public folder replication, let's hear from an IT pro who has who has public folders in excess of 2 GB. "To move or add instances for public folder replication can wreak havoc if you have multiple Exchange sites over a slow link," she said. "Slow in our case is a T1!"

Grein encountered problems with synchronizing Microsoft Outlook while out of the office. "The trouble was difficulty synchronizing Outlook across slow links with Win98," he said. "NT and 2000 keep trying until the transfer is complete; but Win95/98 gives up, which corrupts the local data store." As a result, saved e-mail is no longer accessible until the remote user goes back to the office and resynchronizes. "This is a huge problem when your contact list suddenly becomes unavailable," he said. He temporarily solved his problem by only synchronizing at the office and using a POP client elsewhere.

Taken as a whole, the responses to our "weakest link" polls indicate messaging systems' biggest weakness is people. That's not surprising, when one considers that good communication between human beings has never been easy to accomplish, even with powerful tools like e-mail.

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