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Maintenance key to efficient e-mail systems

There's a lot to manage with your e-mail. But two things are most critical: storage and retrieval.

There's a lot to manage with your e-mail. But there are two principal things that you should be most concerned with: storage and retrieval.

With all the predictions about how much storage for e-mail is going to increase -- from a few Petabytes now to tens of Petabytes over the next few years -- storage is a constantly growing demand. And you have to manage that growing storage requirement.

At the same time, you have to be sure that you can get to your e-mail when you need to. If you can't, it can be a real problem should you have to find past messages that pertain to a particular event or occurrence. Consider the following excerpt from

"Finally, despite the fact that e-mail is an integral part of business communication, the lack of administrative control over e-mail jeopardizes record management procedures and the ability to comply with regulatory and legal requirements. Without a formal filing and retention policy, past e-mails become a maze of unrelated communications that make responding to legal discovery and FOIA requests time consuming and costly. So time consuming and costly, in fact, that many organizations opt to risk non-compliance or settle disputes rather than incur the expense of retrieving archived e-mail."

We don't even have to talk about e-mail security to see the need to efficiently manage e-mail in your company. And IT managers are beginning to get the picture. "Initially it's a storage problem," said Scott Baetz, vice president of management information systems at TechTarget, searchSystemsManagement's parent company. "But as the size of the container that you're using increases, the performance of your e-mail server will become a problem. The data can get spread out all over the server, and thus the e-mail server slows down trying to put mail messages together. So you have to clean up the data store."

A solution to any storage problem, of course, is throwing more storage at the situation. But although the cost of storage per gigabyte is tumbling, in a time of lean budgets, spending more for hardware may be a bit more than you can take on. Baetz says maintenance is the most important ingredient of performance management for e-mail systems. That means keeping the size of the e-mail store within some kind of sensible limit.

But how?

Everyone has received e-mail messages from the e-mail administrator saying that the size of the user mail file on the server is too large and that the particular user has to delete some mail. Servers give the e-mail store a maximum limit. (Baetz noted, however, that recently his company managed to exceed that limit and the e-mail system was down for two days as a result.) When the size of the store approaches that limit, one way to handle the maintenance is to tell users to cut back. But that works with varying degrees of success. Some users will comply; others won't, so the overall effect may be less than desired.

Outlook clients offer to archive a user's old e-mail messages. When messages are archived, they come off the server -- reducing the size of the message store -- and are put into a .PST file on the user's machine. That's good, but it's less than adequate for two reasons: 1. Some users, like me, won't archive old messages, and 2. If you need to get to some old messages, where do you go? Old server backups? All the desktops in the company?

There are a few products available that will do some archiving for you. OTG Software in Rockville, Md., for example, has an e-mail management program, called e-mail extender, that integrates with the company's storage management software, to move data from the e-mail store to the storage medium you designate. It leaves behind so-called "stub-files" that users or administrators can use to find e-mail items not left in the store. The archiving takes place on the server at the behest of the administrator, so it doesn't depend on the user to do proper archiving.

Amena Ali, senior vice president of marketing at OTG Software, said the software can help with both sides of the e-mail management coin. "Say you have a subpoena," she said. "If you need to search cross mailbox for all messages with some characteristic, e-mail Extender will search in attachments as well as in the message text and headers." And the search can be started either from a browser or from the e-mail client.

Managing your e-mail is a task that will keep growing. And just throwing storage at the problem of increasing volumes of e-mail probably won't solve the problem. Whether you choose to go with internal discipline of users or with some third-party solution, staying on top of your e-mail management needs can pay dividends in the future.

About the author: David Gabel is executive technology editor of TechTarget.

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