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Shopping around: Five key features for archive software

Here's some advice on what you should look for when you shop around for an archival software product.

Over the last few years, there have been various forms of legislation passed, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, that require certain companies to keep all e-mails sent within the organization for a specific period of time.

These requirements can put Exchange administrators in a tough spot. On one hand, the government is telling them that they need to have a long-term mail retention policy. On the other hand, Exchange administrators frequently struggle with never having enough disk space on their e-mail servers.

In the past, the solution to the disk space issue has been to impose mail storage quotas on users. However, having disk space quotas often forces users to delete old messages to make room for new ones and deleting old messages might be a direct violation of the government's e-mail retention legislation.

One way to get around this problem is to implement e-mail archival software, which moves old messages off of your server and into a safe location with plenty of disk space. This process is useful in that the old mail won't consume space on your servers, but if the government should ever subpoena your old messages, you will be able to quickly retrieve them.

There are numerous e-mail archival solutions on the market, many of which are expensive. Some products are free, but others cost several hundred dollars and more, depending on how many mailboxes you have to buy licenses for. So before you go and spend big bucks on this software, let's talk about some of the things that you should look for in a good archival software product.

One: Archival procedure
The first thing that you want to look for in a mail archival package is the ability to control what mail is archived. You should be able to specify that mail beyond a specific age is archived automatically.

I have seen a couple of very low-end (free) archival solutions that require you to move mail manually to the archive or that have a fixed value for how old the message should be before it is archived.

Two: Disk Space
Another element that you absolutely must take into consideration is disk space requirements. It doesn't do you a bit of good to archive mail if the archival software requires the archive to exist somewhere on your Exchange Server. You need archival software that will allow the archives to be stored on a separate server. Furthermore, you should check to see if the archival software supports compression. Without compression, the messages within the archives could run a dedicated server out of disk space within a relatively short amount of time.

Three: Multi Server Support
Make sure that the mail archiving software that you choose can support multiple Exchange Servers. Even if you only have a single Exchange Server today, you could have multiple Exchange Servers at some point in the future. You need to plan ahead because you don't want to have to switch archiving solutions once you have a big archive established.

The reason why it's important for the software to support multiple Exchange Servers is because you don't want to end up having to have a separate, dedicated Exchange archival server for every Exchange Server in your organization. Ideally, you want to have a single archival server that can support all of your Exchange Servers.

While I am on the subject of scalability, be sure to ask the sales representative what the limit is to the number of mailboxes supported by the software and how big the largest real world deployment is. I then recommend asking the sales person to put you in touch with the customer with the biggest deployment. This will allow you to do two things. First, you can verify that the sales person is telling you the truth about the size of the deployment. Second, it gives you a chance to ask someone who is actually using the software if they have had any problems with it. For example, you might ask if large-scale searches are painfully slow. Don't let a sales person tell you that their privacy policy prohibits them from letting you talk to other customers. If they want the sale badly enough and they have nothing to hide, then they will be happy to let you talk to other customers.

Four: Archival Type
Something else to check is the method that the archival software uses to archive the old messages. Many archival packages store the old messages in a database, but there are a few solutions out there that use PST files. A true PST file has a 2 GB storage limit. Once this limit is exceeded the file is corrupted. I have seen at least one archival program that uses PST files and claims not to be subject to the 2 GB limit, but I have not been able to personally verify those claims. If you do find yourself considering a PST based archival solution, make sure that the 2 GB limit won't effect you and that you won't be stuck individually managing a zillion PST files.

Five: Accessibility
If a user needs to look at an old message, they should be able to do so without having to call someone. The process should be as easy as just opening a folder. The archival solution should also maintain your current level of Exchange Server security. While you want users to be able to easily retrieve their old messages, you don't want them to be able to browse the entire archives and view everyone else's mail.

On the flip side, however, administrators need to have the ability to not only view the entire archives, but also search the entire archives. Imagine that your company received a court order today demanding to see every e-mail since 1999 that referenced the Smith account. How long would it take to look for all of those e-mails? A decent archive solution should give the administrator global keyword search capabilities across the entire archives.

Bonus Features
Check out what bonus features the various archival packages offer. Some offer features that are very handy, but that have nothing to do with archiving mail. For example, GFI's MailEssentials offers mail archiving combined with anti spam software and a utility that can add disclaimers to the end of all outbound messages.

E-mail archival products

The following are a representative sampling of e-mail archival products that are currently available on the market.

  • MailEssentials from GFI. (MailEssentials is primarily designed to be an anti spam product but offers archival features as well.)
  • Exchange Archive Solution (EAS) from Navistor.
  • Archive One from C2C.
  • CommVault from QiNetix.
  • Enterprise Vault from KVS.

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. Brien has served as the CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer he has written for Microsoft, CNET, ZDNet, Tech Target, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies, and numerous other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web sites at http://www.brienposey.com and < http://www.relevanttechnologies.com.

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