Technology: Thinking Outside the Email Box

In the two decades since the first companies started using email and the Internet, digital communications have become a routine part of daily business.
Admittedly, email systems aren’t perfect. But, if the worst happened and a minor outage turned into a disaster that kept email unavailable for days, the majority of modern businesses would probably fare poorly.
For many, the consequences would be measured in hours. Unplanned outages can cause huge disruption. Even an hour of downtime in a month, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of people represents a significant dollar loss to the business.
With so much at stake, clearly making email an integral part of a business continuity plan is overdue. And it’s not just an IT problem. As email has become a critical business process, ensuring continuity has become a C-level issue. Increasingly these days, CFOs are being asked to work closely with the CIO and even oversee the IT department.
When Email Disappears
Without email for a prolonged period of time, even entire countries can suffer.
In late June this year, the Marshall Islands, a small island nation in the western Pacific Ocean, had its only ISP taken offline for about 18 hours. It was hit by a tidal wave of spam caused by the Srizbi botnet, a spam run that was reported to be four times the normal volume of email traffic.
Natural disasters can also impact business continuity. The danger of natural disaster is very real, as proven by recent earthquakes in China and Indonesia and rising floodwaters in the Philippines and Vietnam. One can strike – unexpectedly -- at any time of year and in any geography and threaten even the soundest business.
During the summer months, higher levels of energy consumption put increasing pressure on energy suppliers in many parts of the world and brownouts and blackouts can be expected.
Other email-related problems include software reliability and hardware problems as well as viruses, spyware and spam. Microsoft Exchange Server, the most widely used email system, experiences an average of 1.6 hours of unplanned downtime per month and 2.4 hours of planned downtime, according to the Radicati Group.
The downtime is usually a result of commonplace hiccups, software patching, updates, and crashes. Without some form of fallback or continuity, such outages result in lost productivity. Moreover, without expensive duplication and redundancy, a single disk or power supply failure can bring down an entire email system. Most server warranties have four-hour service level agreements, which means that in the event of a hardware downtime, email could be out for a half-day.
According to the September 2009 MessageLabs Intelligence Report issued by Symantec Hosted Services, one email in every 399.2 contains a virus and 86.4 percent of all email is spam, meaning that for every legitimate business email an organization receives, it has to process more than seven pieces of junk. Without spam and virus protection, organizations run the risk of falling victim to a debilitating malware attack or overspending on bandwidth and infrastructure.
Without a system that stops spam before it reaches the corporate network, organizations may be paying for bandwidth and email infrastructure that is four times larger than it needs to be. There is also the impact of spam on employee productivity.
Finally, not only can email pose technical risk to business, it can also pose legal risks. For example, employee misuse of the Internet could result in harassment or defamation issues. Similarly, disclosure of confidential information via spyware, eavesdropping or employee misconduct can also put a business at risk. Moreover, government regulations and corporate governance rules can require corporate compliance to avoid hefty fines.
Benefits of Email
The Radicati Group estimates that there were 1.2 billion email users worldwide in October 2007 with 516 million business email inboxes. On average, users sent 38 email messages per day and received 93 email messages per day. Of those 93, an average of 18 emails included an attachment. Email is so commonplace that it is easy to forget its benefits, which include:
Collaboration: A one-to-many medium, email makes it easier to coordinate teams and reach consensus. People use their inbox as a memory aid and document store.
Communication: Email is asynchronous, meaning it allows users to respond when ready and time-shift communications to suit individual schedules.
Coordination: arranging meetings and projects is simplified by email, especially by using meeting invitation tools, as opposed to phone.
Common carrier: Email is universal allowing users to do business anywhere in the world.
Convenience: Mobile email devices like the BlackBerry, remote access and laptop PCs make email flexible to place and time.
Because email is such a critical business process, it cannot fail. Without it, it is difficult for business to continue as usual. Most organizations rely on email to communicate with customers and without it, they risk damaging their reputation and customer relationships.
Today, more and more email is being sent and attachment sizes are increasing, which means that continuity systems must be easily scalable. Managing an email continuity system in-house can be an additional challenge as it requires hefty up-front capital purchases and ongoing maintenance. It can also require additional cumbersome hardware to add to crowded server rooms and a lack of SLAs or guarantees.
Email Continuity
To ensure that a business continues to send and receive email in the event of a natural disaster or spam attack, experts recommend a hosted email continuity solution. This involves a hosted, standby solution that uses a server that may be physically located outside the city where the business is located or even in another country.
When the on-premise email system fails, the back-up solution will keep email flowing, allowing employees to access messages in the last two weeks, in most instances, and their calendars, contacts and personal distribution lists.
When considering a hosted email continuity solution, the following features should stand out:
Servers: Avoid a solution that requires the purchase of redundant, offsite servers.
SLAs: Consider selecting a hosted solution that offers a service level agreement or guarantee that is proven.
Maintenance: Select a solution that does not require ongoing maintenance. That, coupled with the management of other IT systems can cause email continuity to lose priority.
Recovery: Look for a solution that offers rapid recovery after outages, restoring all sent, received and deleted email messages back to the email server with all forensic data still intact.
Cost profile: Choose a predictable per user, monthly fee as opposed to up-front capital expenditures op top of ongoing labor costs.
Scalability: Opt for seamless scalability from one user to tens of thousands instead of solutions that require the purchase of more hardware for each added user.
About the Author
Paul Woods is Senior Analyst at Symantec Hosted Services. 



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