The Cruelest Blow of All?

Fast-responding backup E-mail systems help companies protect their client relations and revenue streams.
Simone KaplanMarch 10, 2004

Here’s a sign of the digital times: in a recent study conducted by Dynamic Markets, technology employees said they thought E-mail outages were more stressful than car accidents or divorces.

While the survey provides a glimpse of the strange but beautiful planet inhabited by IT workers, it also points up just how much employees—and, by extension, their employers—depend on electronic mail. Technology research firm IDC estimates that by next year, U.S. businesses will send a staggering 35 billion E-mails each day. Indeed, a survey of corporate executives by research firm META Group Inc. found that electronic mail is now more important to business operations than phone service.

Given this growing corporate reliance on electronic messaging, you’d think CFOs, CIOs, and risk managers would have plans in place to keep the mail running. And you’d be wrong. While scores of companies shored up their business-continuity plans after 9/11, only 9 percent of companies expect their messaging abilities to operate after a disaster, according to Osterman Research. Over half of those contacted by the consultancy indicated it would take more than four hours to restore E-mail in the event of a blackout, terrorist attack, or natural disaster.

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Currently, a phalanx of companies—including IBM Corp., SunGard Data Systems Inc., and Hewlett-Packard Co.—offer E-mail recovery as part of overarching business-continuity services. But of late, a number of smaller software vendors, such as Evergreen Assurance and MessageOne, have launched packages focused squarely on emergency E-mail services. Such offerings, which cost considerably less than the $10,000 per month charged by some disaster-recovery specialists, should hold real appeal for corporate shoppers—particularly those at smaller businesses. As Matt Cain, a senior vice president at META Group, notes: “Companies are being slapped in the face with the fact that they cannot afford to have E-mail go down.”

Plan B

Annapolis, Md.-based Evergreen provides customers with a secondary E-mail data system. If a client’s primary system fails, the customer simply switches over to the backup. Evergreen also maintains two remote sites to monitor customer- data replication and support customer access to data. Evergreen’s services cost $1 to $6 per user per month, depending on the location of the mirrored environment. There is also a one-time setup fee of $3 to $18 per user.

MessageOne, based in Austin, Tex., takes a slightly different approach. The company’s Emergency Messaging System (EMS) service is a Linux-based program that backs up users’ E-mail address books, contact lists, and other critical information to provide emergency access. If a client’s main E-mail system goes down, the customer activates the EMS service. Employees can then access their E-mail via the Web. In addition, corporate administrators can choose to allow E-mail to be forwarded (on a person-by-person basis) to designated wireless devices, including cell phones and PDAs.

EMS also lets users send and receive messages from their primary work address, rather than from a Yahoo or AOL address. The MessageOne software can also be configured to send E-mail or text messages to users notifying them that a company’s main E-mail system is down. That way, employees will know to log into the service.

“It’s an insurance policy,” asserts Peter Minton, who should know something about such things. Minton is chief risk officer at Max Re Insurance, a Bermuda-based reinsurer. During Hurricane Fabian, Max Re switched on the EMS service just in case E-mail service was knocked out by the storm. While the carrier has a broad disaster-recovery plan—including backup data servers in Dublin—it takes hours to switch over to those servers. Says Minton: “We don’t even want to think about the repercussions of an E-mail outage on our client relations or our revenue stream.”

Other executives have similar concerns. Lynn McGuire, CIO of Andrews & Kurth, a Houston-based law firm, activated its EMS service in June when a major server upgrade was required. In lieu of scheduling an outage to accommodate the upgrade, the firm activated the EMS to maintain E-mail systems during it. According to McGuire, the backup E-mail system was up and running in 15 minutes, and “the outside world never saw a difference in our communications.”