Tips for E-Mail Management

E-mail has always been more painful to manage than it should be. Early versions of Exchange bombed for no apparent reason, while the Notes/Domino server mired e-mail management in a groupware muddle. With Exchange 2000 and Domino Server version 6, the top two e-mail servers have matured and stabilized. But now the forces of darkness have conspired to make things difficult once again.

The problem is that people are getting more e-mail and deleting less. The biggest new reason for bloat is spam: IT managers now invariably use the word exponential to describe spam’s ugly hockey stick, which (if you believe some reports) accounts for as much as 50 percent of all corporate e-mail. Compounding the problem, Enron, WorldCom and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act have everybody spooked. Should I save that e-mail from Bob forever in case the attorney general calls?

The result is that e-mail stores are ballooning out of control like never before. And that’s bad news for a couple of reasons. One is day-to-day performance: E-mail server databases were never intended to handle a jillion unarchived messages. And, of course, all e-mail servers have hard limits on the size of their stores. But the real problem is the time it takes to do backups and restore when those files get really gargantuan.

Here are a few strategies to consider in taming the e-mail monster.

Get serious about spam—now. Simple domain blacklists can cut the spam problem in half immediately; the SenderBase free Web service from e-mail hardware vendor IronPort Systems could help you keep tabs on the worst offenders. New enterprise spam-filtering software such as CloudMark Authority, MailFrontier and ProofPoint install on your server and offer tons of options, but don’t go overboard. You don’t want false positives, nor do you want IT to have to review "suspect" spam every day, so be conservative with your filter settings and think in terms of cutting rather than eliminating.

Discover your real e-mail retention obligations. Broker dealers are required by the SEC and NASD to retain all e-mails associated with trades for three years in a "nontamperable" format such as WORM. But other industries also have requirements, so if you have questions, don’t guess—consult a legal specialist in this area. In the end, you may have less to worry about than you think.

For easier restores, do "bricklayer" backups. This means you back up mailbox by mailbox on tape so that you can restore an individual mailbox rather than an entire data store only to find something deleted accidentally. The downside is that bricklayer backups take longer.

Choose your archiving. If you need to retain all e-mails for regulatory purposes, then archive everything to a separate server and get the added benefit of easy recovery. For most of us, though, the simplest way to lighten the mail server’s load is simply to move attachments to a file server automatically. You can also create a rules-based system so that e-mails of a certain age along with attachments migrate to the archive server.

In the end, the most interesting trend in e-mail may be the recognition that so much of an enterprise’s intellectual capital is bound up in e-mail messages. Last April, Documentum released its new Enterprise Records Management Edition, which scans e-mail content and adds meta-tags to messages for easy retrieval along with other related documents.

Lately, e-mail has become a pain in the butt, not to mention a potential source of liability. It’s encouraging to think that one day soon, e-mail may be viewed as an asset not just by the users addicted to it but by managers who want to mine e-mail stores for valuable enterprise information.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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