Fixing your company's e-mail problems

What was your introduction to e-mail? Mine occurred in late 1981 when we installed an experimental system (known as "x.mail") at Prime Computer in Massachusetts. In those days e-mail was mostly a "gee whiz" technology, and was as proprietary as could be (remember, this was pre-Internet).

My greatest problem with the e-mail system in those days was that it seemed to take a full day to get replies from our companion site in Bedford, just up the road. Being a newbie at the company, I of course never realised that the Bedford I was writing to was really in the U.K., and that my sending something off to them at 3:00 p.m., would have had a much better chance of being seen if I had somehow found a way to direct the message to any of the numerous local pubs where my British colleagues were quite likely to be.

Roll forward to 2005 and we see that e-mail is now perhaps the single-most ubiquitous software program on the planet. But in many ways it hasn't changed much. Notes, Exchange, Eudora, most of the others, take your pick - they all store messages and attachments in pretty much the same way as was done in the 1980s, which is to say pretty darned inefficiently. Furthermore, e-mail systems manipulate data in ways that are so clumsy that a more suspicious person than I might wonder if the e-mail vendors really intend to make their money through the sale of their software at all - some might suspect that the vendors might be making a better income from their series of surreptitious investments in the disk drive companies. After all, today e-mail stores everything everywhere, copies each attachment multiple times, and the vendors make no serious attempt at providing workable archiving tools.

It's the sort of thing to make even the greenest of conspiracy theorists sit up and take notice (ever wonder why the SAME PEOPLE make up ALL the conspiracy theories?)

Rather than scurrying off to figure out if "Seagate" or "Maxtor" or "Western Digital" is really some subtle anagram for Microsoft however, I suggest you just assume that the way most e-mail packages handle data is both wasteful and inept, and get on with your life. Which is to say, look for some useful tools to help you fix your own company's e-mail problems.

This week let's look at the problems administrators have servicing remote users.

E-mail admins have several options these days. Most obviously, they can centrally consolidate e-mail servers over the WAN, thus simplifying management and consolidating their storage. The down side? Poor e-mail performance for the remote sites.

The inverse strategy is to put an Exchange server in each branch office. Deployment and management costs however make this an unlikely scenario, and one that is particularly ill-advised for remote offices that lack an IT staff.

The newest version of Exchange provides another option: running e-mail in cached mode. In this case, users have no visibility to e-mails with attachments until the file transfer over the WAN is complete. The bandwidth requirements for this, however, are considerable. Go this route and you should expect either to slow down other WAN apps, or to drive up WAN costs, or just as likely, both.

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