Email: a question of content

By | December 3, 2006

In the last few years, business email has growing from a useful but niche application to the de-facto standard for collaboration in most companies. For many office workers, the email application is their main source of information; in the supply chain, it often acts as the primary link between suppliers and customers.

The average office worker now handles some 75 emails a day. In many organisations it is email, rather than the phone, that is the main means of communication. This has doubtless brought productivity benefits. But it has brought problems too.

Much of the current email infrastructure used by enterprises today was built with small, internal workgroups in mind. Now, email is used to handle anything from customer orders to merger and acquisition documents. Email systems now also handle attachments, such as presentations, and rich media content including audio and video files.

This has led to bourgeoning storage demands as companies try to store and archive ever-greater volumes of messages. Some industry estimates suggest that in an enterprise, there can be as many as seven copies of each and every email. Left unchecked, this puts an intolerable strain on both servers and storage systems.

Companies face growing bills for expensive primary storage, for server hardware and licenses, and licenses and consumables for back-up systems. And this spending might not even address companies’ real needs to manage and archive their emails.

On the record

Increasingly, businesses see email as a matter of record. But conventional backup and recovery practice is not always best suited to handling large and increasing volumes of unstructured data.

A typical back-up strategy would mean backing up the data on a specific server to tape, or possibly low cost disk systems such as network-attached storage devices. In this model, the IT department is well-placed to restore the data on a server, should it fail, or even replicate it on a new machine.

However, such techniques do little to help businesses to find individual emails, either for their own purposes or in order to meet regulatory demands. Regulatory investigator is not interested in whether the contents of the drive on a particular server can be restored. What they want is copies of all emails from an individual trader to their clients, or all correspondence relating to a deal. And they may well demand to see records that are five or more years old.

Compliance demands and the need to control the growing data storage demands driven by email usage are prompting companies to think again about how they manage and archive unstructured data. Although managing hardware usage – such as moving email data from fast to low cost disk storage and then on to tape – is important, businesses are also taking a hard look at how they manage email information itself.

A question of content

Companies will, of course, need to maintain or even boost their conventional back-up activities, to ensure business continuity. But businesses and other large organisations are starting to think beyond the hardware-centric approach of back-up and recovery, and instead look at systems that work with the content of the information itself.

Dealing with large and growing volumes of unstructured information means thinking beyond hardware. One solution is to approach a supplier with a track record in document management and enterprise content management (ECM). Managing information in email is an increasingly important part of the ECM landscape.

Approaching the problem of email management from a content-centric, rather than hardware focused perspective raises some new possibilities. If businesses have a better view of the information in their email systems, they can make better choices about how to store it, and for how long.

Much of the email processed by corporate IT systems today has little or no long-term value: as much as 70 per cent of email reaching company systems today is junk mail, or spam.

But once an message reaches a company email system, the business needs to make some choices about whether to keep the message, and for how long. A system that can sort incoming and outgoing messages by type, usage, importance and regulatory requirements is a powerful aid to information processing, allows integration of email with hierarchical storage management technologies, and saves money.

An effective email or enterprise content management system will make the best use of data storage resources and allow the best use of the business information contained in emails and associated documents.

Recent and frequently-used emails should be stored where staff can access them quickly, either on the mail server itself, or on an associated, high-performance storage area networks. For most companies, keeping messages for 30 days is adequate.

The next step is to archive messages to less expensive storage, such as network attached storage systems. With the right software, for most users the delay in loading data from such systems is almost unnoticeable. Information that is only needed for reference or compliance purposes can then be moved to offline storage, such as tape or optical disk.

For almost all businesses, it is a given that their email storage requirements will continue to grow. Regulatory pressures mean that enterprises need to take a structured approach to preserving vital business information – often for many years. For the enterprise that depends on email, email management is a vital tool.

Open text Ltd is exhibiting at Documation UK in partnership with AIIM, it is the only event of its kind in the UK covering end-to-end enterprise content management.

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