Modernizing Your Messaging Infrastructure

How to get more from your e-mail system.

by Greg Olsen

Our world economy is in turmoil, affecting corporate budgets of all sizes. Declining revenues and a lack of pricing power are forcing firms to lower expenses, which means budgets are being slashed in every area of business operations. IT departments are no exception. Reducing operating expenses while maintaining high service levels (or even expanding capabilities) seems an impossible task, yet such is not the case. This article explores how you can do more with less with your e-mail system; we will dissect the best practices for modernizing the messaging infrastructure that will help you optimize your e-mail systems and get the most bang from your budget.

Current messaging infrastructures have grown organically over the years, and there are many (often unrealized) opportunities for corporations to reduce operating expenses by re-architecting their messaging infrastructure, including: eliminating duplication, unnecessary vendors, simplifying the mail flows, and replacing obsolete systems that have accumulated over time.

The Evolution of E-mail

From the time the Internet was opened to commercial use in 1985, until roughly 1995, the primary concern addressed by Internet e-mail solutions was reliable delivery of e-mail messages. At the time, the technologies deployed were primarily software on UNIX systems, which seemed like a logical choice because the first implementations of SMTP e-mail were developed on and distributed with various UNIX systems.

From roughly 1995 to 2005, concerns grew beyond basic delivery to keeping external network intrusions at bay, primarily spam and viruses. The technologies available to combat the issues were initially software solutions, but by 2002, numerous single-purpose appliances became available to address the security needs.

In 2005, the e-mail landscape had changed yet again. This time, e-mail systems were enlisted in the efforts to ensure privacy and comply with regulations. This meant that data leakage prevention (DLP) systems and encryption solutions were woven into the mix of e-mail systems. The solutions were either software or appliance-based products.

The consequence of this history is the proliferation of point solutions designed to address specific threats and provide specific services. Point solutions that provide separate bits of functionality were integrated with the lowest common denominator, routing e-mail over SMTP between systems in a layered fashion, which has proven to be inefficient. It set the e-mail infrastructure on a collision course with current IT initiatives to reduce expenses.

Breaking Down Barriers

Single-purpose appliances offer a number of advantages over software solutions, including being easier to install and maintain. However, there are downfalls as well. Appliances often lead to very poor server utilization rates, since I/O-bound, CPU-bound, and memory-intensive applications are on separate appliances rather than consolidated into one. Each separate product also requires separate training, as well as maintenance contracts for each. To address these challenges, organizations should consider modernizing the messaging infrastructure.

Best Practices for Modernizing Messaging Infrastructures

Best Practice #1: Choose the Right Platform

Deploy a flexible technology platform (either software or appliance) that can accommodate the functionality provided by multiple point solutions on a common platform. Assuming appliances are deployed, the appliances should be "open" in the sense that they will integrate multiple technologies onto a single platform. Today, many vendors offer one-stop shopping for industry-standard technologies that are integrated directly into their offerings or available as additional plug-in applications. In the software world, many common APIs are available to integrate disparate technology in an efficient way, such as the industry standard milter API (used to plug external applications directly into MTAs) available in many open source and commercial e-mail products.

As an example, consider the word processor from the 1970s and early 1980s as proof this can be done. Word processors were single-purpose hardware products operated by specialists. Over time they became an application that ran on a technology platform, i.e. the personal computer. It’s the natural evolution of technology. There is also an analogous development in the use of service-oriented architectures with Web applications. Functionality is no longer delivered by monolithic products but rather by a collection of applications integrated into a common framework of APIs that may be mixed and matched to deliver the solution at a lower cost.

Best Practice #2: Go with the Flow

When a technology platform and its integrated applications are deployed, it becomes possible to simplify routing of your e-mail flow. Layers of separate processing are collapsed, enabling the decommissioning of servers or separate appliances while providing higher service levels and lower staffing and training requirements. For example, anti-virus, DLP, and encryption functions may all be deployed in the outbound mail flow on a single platform, which radically simplifies the mail flow while increasing the ability to provide added functionality such as encryption based on content discovered during DLP scanning.

Best Practice #3: Virtualize Your Environment

Although virtualization presents many management challenges, it still has been proven to effectively increase server utilization, ease deployment of additional capacity, and improve up-time. The virtualization layer does provide some concrete advantages in appliance deployment speed, failover, and disaster recovery. It has also made appliances with no built-in fault tolerance or clustering capability fault tolerant at the virtualization layer. Therefore, the messaging infrastructure should be considered a candidate for virtualization.

Summary

The benefits of modernizing the messaging infrastructure become clear immediately. The capital expenses of deploying a modernized messaging infrastructure on a technology platform can often be justified by the operating expenses alone. The procedure is straightforward, the existing costs of all components of the messaging infrastructure are tabulated, and they are then compared to the total cost of ownership of the modern and consolidated solution, based on acquisition and deployment costs, staffing and training requirements, and ongoing maintenance costs.

The total cost of the acquisition plus the three-year operating expenses of the consolidated and modernized infrastructure may be significantly less than the three-year operation expenses of the existing infrastructure. On this three-year total cost of ownership basis, equivalent or even greater functionality may be deployed while operating expenses are reduced. Economic realities of the firm may be met without lowering service levels in your e-mail system.

Greg Olsen is the director of business development at Sendmail. You can contact the author at golsen@sendmail.com.