Email Archiving ? All or Forever

By Julie Colgan posted 01-06-2011 09:06


I have been in conversations with an email archiving company on behalf of a client and feel the need to rant a little.  Hopefully it’s a fairly constructive rant.

Email Archiving Solutions (I contend they are simply tools/systems, not solutions, but hey, maybe that’s just me …) claim to “solve” the compliance and ediscovery woes of organizations with regard to email.  And how do they “solve” compliance and ediscovery woes?  They keep ALL email that is sitting on your mail server.  And they keep it forever, unless you do something proactive to delete it.  Hmmm, so how about being compliant with your own internal policies, like your records management policy and retention schedule?

Clearly keeping all email in order to support search and retrieval for compliance needs and/or for discovery is helpful, but there is absolutely no reason to keep ALL email (in perpetuity, or not); the value is in keeping those emails that NEED to be kept for specific reasons (as defined in your records management policy and retention schedule), THEN being able to search and produce it when necessary, and THEN getting rid of it when it's appropriate.

Any organization who employs a records management policy and records retention schedule, and who employs an email archiving tool, but who DOESN’T actually dispose of email is breaking their own rules, and to the ultimate detriment of the business itself.

So What is an Email Archive Good For?

Email, as we all know, is popular.  We all get far too much of it, and probably send too much too.  The sheer volume of email being sent, received – and kept – in organizations puts a very heavy weight on the email servers; so much so that those servers started to get wobbly and crash.  So, enter Email Archiving Solutions, stage right.

One of the main reasons email archive tools were dreamt up was to alleviate the weight on the servers – move that email that everyone gets and sends – and keeps – onto some other platform for storage so the email server can get back to doing what it does best … receiving and delivering email.  Rather than make people manage email, let’s just move it! 

In a nutshell, it was a way for the IT folks (bless their hearts – I highly doubt it was malicious, just expedient) to ensure stability of mail servers without having to actually manage the information in the first place (just ask most RMs who’s organization has an email archiving tool in place whether or not they were consulted or involved in the selection and/or implementation of it … you’ll likely find the answer is a resounding “no”, followed by a frown and then gritting teeth.)

Manage First, "Archive" Second

Honestly, I’m cool with email archiving systems, and do think they have a place in *some* organizations.  Hey, I want to get my email too, so let’s not make our servers crash by keeping the email that needs to be kept on the server itself.  Let’s move it. BUT … not ALL of it, for goodness sakes!!  And be thoughtful about where you move it to, and why.  An email archive is nothing more than a dumb repository with a search engine.  It won’t look at your email and make a determination of whether or not it should be kept; it just keeps it.

Email needs to be evaluated based on its content, then deleted when it’s not a record and kept when it is.  If you do this, consistently and pervasively, I guarantee the weight on your servers will be far less than before and may find you don’t need an email archive in the first place. 

However, if you are a large organization with extraordinarily large volumes of email and just can’t let it sit on the server for, say 30, 60 or 90 days waiting for an end user to make a determination of the record status of their email, then fine, go get an email archive system, but know this …

Email archives are/should be temporary storage for mail that simply can’t sit on the server due to operational efficiency.  In the end, email should either be deleted or moved to a system that will allow the organization to manage email records as records throughout their retention period.

Email archive systems are not records management, document management or content management systems. 

When you send email there, understand that it should not live there forever as a way to meet your compliance obligations.  If you need to retain email as a corporate record, it is far better off, in the long term, being stored in a system where email is organized according to your retention schedule/corporate taxonomy and which can apply retention rules to the content. (Note: Some email archiving vendors claim their products can do this; however I have yet to find one that can natively manage email as a record as well as a records management system can – based on records management criteria such as records series, etc.  If you are such a vendor and want to prove me wrong, please comment on this post – we want to know who you are!).  That’s not to say that email in an email archiving system CAN’T be managed according to a retention schedule, it’s just hard(er).

The compliance piece comes into play because when you employ an email archiving system, you are essentially centralizing the storage of email (usurping the creation of .psts and other off-network storage).  When email is in a central repository, you can search it for compliance (and ediscovery) needs, and generally produce relevant email.  However, again, if you wholesale off-load your mail server into an archive, you are simply increasing the amount of stuff you have to search through for compliance/discovery efforts.  Don’t move it all – it’s not worth it!



Side note: Is it email or emails?  I asked that question on Twitter and there appears to be a great divide, and some folks are quite passionate about their choice.  I go back and forth, but generally use email as both singular and plural, and as a verb.  Comes down to one less keystroke per instance, and I like that economy.

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