Managing the Email Archive: Compliance and Complexities

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Health-care IT professionals are no strangers to the complexities that arise from managing ever-growing archives. One particular subset of the data stored across the enterprise, however, might be overlooked: email archives. Although one analysis by Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), Milford, Massachusetts—a market-research and analyst company—suggests that between 2007 and 2009, the average organization’s email archive grew between 200% and 300%, many health-care organizations still use a traditional archive to manage retention of older email messages.

Brian Babineau, vice president of research and analyst services at ESG, says, “We’re subject to regulatory requirements that call for certain content to be subject to record retention, and a portion of that content may reside or be communicated via email. We archive because we have to archive.”

In a webinar entitled Enterprise Data Management in the Cloud: Conquering Compliance Complexity, Babineau outlines both the conventional approaches to email archiving and their limitations. Specifically, he observes that in almost every industry, retention of email is regulated to some degree—and health care is no exception. “Attorneys and regulators have started requesting electronic records,” he notes. “The e-discovery phenomenon is one of many reasons companies implement an email archive.”

In addition, he observes, archiving old email enables organizations to optimize their primary email environment. “It provides us the opportunity to offload data and content to a secondary environment,” he says. “The performance and cost of ownership of the primary environment can then be better controlled.” According to May 2010 ESG research report, 22% of organizations cite compliance as their primary reason for archiving email, while 16% cite improving email-server performance. “Compliance and litigation support are up there, but we are also starting to see this being driven by performance,” Babineau says.

Conventional Archives

Babineau notes that two kinds of email archives are commonly employed today. The first is a conventional archive, which is simply a means of backing up old email to tape or disk for a designated period of time. “What we often forget is there’s another type of archive,” Babineau says. “Employees are typically saving or creating a personal archive of Personal Storage Table (PST) or Notes Storage Facility (NSF) files. Our survey suggests that a third of organizations have over a terabyte of PST files, and 50% of companies have no idea how many PST or NSF files they have—which creates a big problem, going forward.”

The issue, Babineau explains, is that most organizations enforce a limit on how many emails a user can have in his or her account, but conventional archives make emails archived by IT difficult to access without a special request—so users take matters into their own hands and create personal archives on their own computers. “Rather than trigger a quota limit, employees will create these archives, so IT has one archive with backup tapes and disks, and there’s also the personal archive with the employees,” Babineau says. “This is quite common.”

The only alternative available to organizations operating a conventional archive is to offer users an unlimited mailbox—an approach that comes with headaches of its own. “When you go to the unlimited-mailbox requirement, you’re increasing your infrastructure costs,” Babineau says, “so there’s really no perfect scenario. It’s always a trade-off, and that trade-off is usually fairly expensive.”

For these reasons, organizations are increasingly turning to purpose-built architectures for the management of archived emails. These architectures facilitate incremental access to email by copying messages from the primary environment to a secondary application environment. “The difference here is there’s much better access to archived messages,” Babineau says. “When you use a purpose-built solution, there’s no PST requirement—you can still have quotas, but once a mailbox gets to a certain size, it triggers an archive operation.”

ESG research indicates that around 35% of organizations are currently using purpose-built solutions. Babineau theorizes that adoption has been slow because the burdens associated with moving to purpose-built environments might outweigh the advantages, for many organizations. “It does require you to buy infrastructure,” he says. “You start to think, how big will the index get? What computing resources