Searching for Solutions – Simplifying E-mail Searching in a World of Frequent Requests

Driven by regulations and internal compliance issues, searching and retrieving old e-mail stores is a challenge. Stronger search tools can help lessen the pain.

An estimated 60 billion e-mails are sent worldwide every day, according to an IDG News Service report. That incredible number continues to grow as we rely on e-mail for every aspect of business life, and e-mail administrators clearly have their work cut out for them. Even at a relatively small business, keeping up with the high volume of new e-mail is a challenging task. To make sure everything runs smoothly with new mail every day, administrators must complete a wide variety of tasks, from creating mailboxes for new users to maintaining security for the mailboxes accessed by multiple workers. If e-mail is down for even one minute due to this normal upkeep, users will notice.

New mail is not the only thing e-mail administrators have to manage. Increasingly, businesses are being called upon to search through and retrieve old mail messages, and the grounds for such searches are increasing, making the task more detailed, difficult, and time-consuming. From business demands to regulatory requirements to internal compliance issues, a myriad of reasons can keep e-mail administrators busy, placing an additional burden on normal operations and putting a company’s business continuity at risk. A look at the general categories behind most search requests demonstrates just how significant this issue has become.

One reason companies must search for old e-mail is because users delete their mail and later decide that they need it back. With storage space at a premium, many companies have to set mailbox size limits and mailbox quotas. These limits force employees to delete messages, even those vital to their work. However, because employees delete mail they need for their work, they make a greater number of requests to the IT department to restore their mail—and in many cases that mail exists only on backup media. So while storing mail on the server and setting mailbox size limits may solve the storage management needs of IT, it creates a conflict with the business needs of employees, thereby creating increased requests for restoring mail from backup.

In terms of regulatory demands, a variety of state and federal regulations require that e-mail be kept as a normal part of doing business. Among the e-mail retention legislation and regulations are The Data Protection Act of 1988, The Freedom of Information Act 2000, Basel II (Capital Adequacy Directive), and Companies (Audit, Investigations and Community Enterprise) Bill. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) imposed a variety of regulations about how health-related information must be stored.

While the healthcare industry and the financial services industries are most affected by regulations, other industries are increasingly affected as well. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 is known as the public company accounting reform and investor protection act. It requires corporate responsibility and has rules as to accessibility of information and data related to accounting and financial matters.

Another common reason for e-mail search requests is associated with internal compliance issues. Human Resources departments frequently have to ensure that employees are meeting the guidelines set forth in employee handbooks, and e-mail is an excellent way to track past behavior. Companies monitor e-mail use periodically to ensure proper use of the system and to ensure quality control, employee safety, security, and customer satisfaction. In this way, they can easily track if e-mail is being used in any manner that could be disruptive, offensive to others, or harmful to morale—such as e-mail containing sexually-explicit images, racial epithets, or content that could be construed as harassment or disparagement of others based on their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or any other characteristic protected by law.

These general categories prove that there are many reasons why companies may need to search through old e-mail. To do so effectively, there are a variety of factors to consider, making restoring this old mail even possible. First, the mail has to be backed up yet accessible. While most companies perform backups, the accessibility factor can be a major problem. For example, if a company has used a backup solution and decides to switch to a new vendor, the current system may not be able to read the old backup media or format. A similar situation occurs when a new IT worker joins the company and has no idea what format was used to create the prior backups.

One of the biggest problems with restoring mail from backups is associated specifically with Microsoft Exchange Server—a significant concern since Exchange is so ubiquitous in large IT shops. On Exchange Server, administrators can either run a full backup or back up an individual mailbox or individual mailboxes (‘brick-level’ backup). While the first form of backup answers the requirements of today’s business continuity plans, it creates problems when a request arrives for the recovery of a single mailbox or individual mail message. The only option is to spend considerable money and time resurrecting the entire group of mailboxes. The challenge only deepens when IT needs to search for and recover an individual message.

Solving the Search Problem

There are two traditional solutions to this problem, but neither makes searching through old mail an easy task. One method is to create a duplicate Exchange Server (‘recovery server’) where it is possible to copy the backup to this ”clone” and then export individual mailboxes to .PST files. These can then be searched for the requested messages, which must then be copied back to the server. This can be very costly and takes considerable effort.

The other option: perform a brick-level backup. This method enables the restoration of single mailboxes, groups of mailboxes, single messages or groups of messages. Although this sounds easy, it is extremely time-consuming. Brick-level backups take significantly more space and time than full backups. A server with 400 mailboxes can take about one hour to do a full online backup. The same server, doing a brick-level backup of all of those mailboxes, one at a time, can take 18 hours.

Thankfully, there are new tools for Exchange that eliminate these scenarios and make searching through old e-mail—no matter how voluminous—a much easier process. Whether they need to produce old messages for regulatory compliance, archive legacy e-mail, or assist with a business project, companies typically have a great deal of old mail to filter, and most often that mail is stored in several places. The content analysis capabilities of new tools enable a user to perform complex operations on combinations of data sources rather than perform the operations one at a time. Administrators can use the content-analysis tool to work offline from their production server, minimizing the time needed to filter specific messages.

Having these capabilities gives Exchange administrators a better opportunity to support their users and answer requests to search old mail. A look at some specific examples reveal how useful a powerful e-mail management tool can be to help search for old mail within the larger context of business, regulatory and compliance-related concerns. Consider this scenario: an employee deleted a string of messages that are now needed to complete an important project. All of these messages were on one Exchange Server but stored in multiple Exchange Database files (EDBs) within that server. To view the entire server and find every needed message, an Exchange administrator needs powerful searching tools to searches through each EDB—otherwise, individual searches are time-consuming and arduous. Using a software product that has content-analysis capabilities, the admin can create a single Content Analysis Store containing the multiple EDBs. This saves substantial time and allows the user to get their deleted messages back faster.

In regulatory situations, Exchange administrators have the heavy responsibility of producing old messages to satisfy legislation. The demands of Sarbanes-Oxley, for example, dictate that a company must maintain a sizeable amount of mail associated with accounting or financial data. Within this context, there are many situations where the Exchange administrator needs to perform an in-depth investigation to address a specific regulatory request. A thorough investigation often includes multiple users where the mail is stored in multiple sources. With the latest software advancements, administrators can create one or more profiles on one or more sources, easily analyzing their Exchange backups and finding the information needed in an efficient manner.

Finally, consider the case of a company that wants to search through an employee’s old e-mail to ensure they are complying with internal policy regarding explicit e-mails. In this scenario, most of the e-mail is in their current backup system, but some of the necessary e-mail only exists on previous backups made with a different system. Despite the fact that this e-mail stretches over a long time period, the admin must find all of the relevant messages to satisfy the request. To locate specific information, these cases call on Exchange administrators to study a single EDB file covering that time period.

Monitoring a single user for a set duration is normally a difficult task because the administrator may have to search through several sources to find all of the mail associated with the user. Searching through each source, then assembling that information into a single profile, can get very confusing. With stronger search functionality, the Exchange admin can achieve this granularity by creating a Content Analysis Store comprised of the backup EDBs from the desired time period, and creating a profile for that user. Admins can even include e-mail from the backup tapes, producing a complete time-period view for that user and giving the company exactly what they requested with minimal administrative effort.

Companies have no shortage of reasons to search through their old e-mail, and search requests will only continue to grow. Exchange administrators have plenty to keep them busy without the labor-intensive searches that can take up their precious time and result in a significant expense to the company. In today’s Exchange environment, new e-mail management tools are not only convenient but necessary to help administrators answer restore requests without adversely affecting their day-to-day responsibilities. Messages currently stored on backups are only part of the gigantic volume that administrators need to dig through—60 billion more messages are right around the corner, ready to make the task more challenging than ever.