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 do I need to run this environment? How am I going to migrate? Is it worth the hassle, and do I need an upfront capital expenditure to build this?” Emerging Solutions According to ESG’s research, among existing users of purpose-built archives, the primary challenges associated with this approach are having ever-expanding archives and training end users to work with the application. “While we’re keeping our primary environments lean and performing well, our secondary environments are growing substantially,” Babineau says. “When you think about the impediments to archiving in this way, the challenges are the capital cost to put in that environment and the operational headaches likely to be caused by data growth.” As organizations have increasingly begun to turn to cloud-based email, so Babineau believes that cloud-based email archiving—which provides a software-as-a-service version of purpose-built archiving—will soon emerge as a leading alternative for those who don’t want the hassle and cost of an in-house purpose-built storage environment. “With a cloud-based archive, these services are nearly immediate to set up and configure,” he notes. “You can start optimizing your primary environment almost immediately. The configuration changes, to get started, are very straightforward, and there’s rarely any impact within the primary environment.” For organizations considering moving to a cloud provider for email archiving, Babineau recommends assessing five key areas: the provider’s end-user experience (it should be intuitive), its security offerings, its disaster recovery plan, the compliance/e-discovery experience being offered, and its service-level agreements (particularly access and availability). Organizations should also make sure that the solution can support cloud-based email and should inquire about mobile-device access and support. They should look for providers offering unlimited storage. “I view this like the old roaming options for cell phones,” Babineau says. “Nobody wants to get that bill.” For most organizations, “It’s really not whether you’re going to move to a purpose-built solution; it’s when,” Babineau concludes. “Do you want to run the archive and be responsible for managing the data? For some of you, the answer may be yes. For others, the software-as-a-service or cloud-based solution makes more sense.” Cat Vasko is editor of ImagingBiz.com and associate editor of Radiology Business Journal.