Can You Look It Up?

Think it's hard to find something in your swollen E-mail inbox? Imagine searching through your company's entire archive.
Marshall KrantzJanuary 1, 2009

“Discovery” sounds exciting, unless you’re talking about legal discovery. In that case, it becomes a bureaucratic nightmare as you pore through electronic records and paper documents in an effort to satisfy the demands of lawyers. That’s far from a rare occurrence: according to Osterman Research, nearly 40 percent of 130 companies it surveyed last September had been ordered by a court or regulatory body to produce employee E-mail in the past 12 months. The median time for fulfilling a single data-retrieval request from backup files is eight person-hours, Osterman found. The cost quickly adds up; some companies have actually settled lawsuits rather than conduct a lengthy E-mail discovery.

An archiving application for E-mail can reduce the retrieval time to just 30 minutes, but most such software is designed to meet the compliance needs of heavily regulated industries, like financial services. As a result, says Forrester Research’s Jo Maitland in an October report, “much of the functionality is overkill” for other kinds of companies, and “many firms are getting tangled up in the complexity of these products.”

So how should you manage your E-mail archives? Forrester recommends four key actions: rightsize the archiving infrastructure; rehearse E-discovery scenarios; consider archiving other kinds of files, such as voice mail, in addition to E-mail; and manage the archive for the long term. In sum, archiving requires more than just a makeshift solution. In particular, rightsizing the infrastructure usually means that companies will need more storage than they think. “Two of the most commonly cited mistakes are not dedicating enough capacity and [enough processing] power to the archive,” says Forrester, warning companies not to archive on the cheap.

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“Most firms are dealing with an exponential growth in E-mail,” says Tom Fread, director of compliance technology at Cowen and Co., a New York investment bank. “Network storage demands related to E-mail are growing at unsustainable rates, so simply maintaining backups is clearly not cost-efficient or a good long-term strategy.” Much E-mail contains data-hungry attachments like images (think PowerPoints) or audio and video files, Fread points out. Many firms, like Cowen, also archive instant messages, electronic faxes, and recordings of Internet telephone calls.

Cowen uses a hosted archiving service from Proofpoint. Such offerings tend to run about $30 to $70 per user per year, according to Proofpoint vice president Andrés Kohn; he adds that the value proposition of his company’s software substantially diminishes for companies with fewer than 100 users. An in-house approach might cost a company up to $200 per user per year. At the low end, Google charges as little as $25 per user to archive E-mail for up to one year. The market is crowded with vendors that offer everything from hosted services to appliances (hardware bundled with dedicated software) to traditionally licensed software. Capabilities and capacities vary greatly, so caveat emptor.

Here are some shopping tips from Forrester:

  • Before acquiring an archiving system, consult your legal and human-resources departments to make sure their needs are met.
  • Adopt software that includes file storage in addition to E-mail, and ask when vendors plan to support other kinds of applications, such as Microsoft Office’s SharePoint.
  • Avoid an archiving product that’s a hodgepodge of third-party tools. Software from a vendor with multiple partners can adversely affect timely discovery if the system malfunctions, since more than one vendor may be needed to fix the problem.
  • Specify the essential discovery features, as many products contain many more features than most companies use. Some of the most commonly used features are the ability to mark messages with custom notes and for legal holds, to save and export search results, and to flag new items related to an existing search.

Beyond buying the right technology, companies need to establish archive retention and deletion policies that take into account regulations that may pertain to their industries, and clearly specify who can access the archive and under what conditions.

Marshall Krantz is a freelance writer in Oakland, California.