E-mail explosion

The average e-mail is growing faster than you can say "supersize me". Your mail server may already have trouble digesting big attachments, but the problem is only going to get worse. While today's typical e-mail weighs in at a mere 20KB, analysts predict attachment types such as video will make 50M to 200MB messages common in the next few years. A steady diet of mammoth messages can overwhelm mail servers, delay delivery and increase the size of already large in-boxes, which slows back-up and restore operations.

"To manage an e-mail system, 50 to 75 percent of the cost is in the labour," says Michael Osterman, founder of Osterman Research, a company that analyzes messages. That chore is likely to consume more of your IT department's time unless you get mushrooming messages under control. A growing number of products can help you get a grip on expanding e-mail systems, including e-mail archiving software, caching appliances that store large file attachments and third-party file download services.

The trouble with traditional solutions

E-mail came to life as a system for short, temporary messages, but the in-box has evolved into the primary home of crucial business information for many people. In-boxes are already packed with large presentations and PDF files, but video will cause the real explosion. Video clips will become common in the next two years as people create video on their PCs, digital cameras and even their mobile phones, says David Via, an analyst at Ferris Research.

"The e-mail problem is not going away," Via says. "IT needs to think about it strategically."

The blight of bloated in-boxes is nothing new for market researcher Millward Brown. Many employees had 1GB mailboxes, and some even surpassed 3GB, according to Kean Millward, CTO of the company. "People were complaining on a daily basis that e-mail was slow," he says. "We suffered Exchange server outages and had trouble restoring in a timely fashion due to the sheer size of the user mailboxes." Instituting quotas for the size of in-boxes and file attachments won't solve the problem, as Millward found. Employers pay a productivity cost when users regularly spend too much time on mail tasks, such as combing through and deleting messages to comply with a mailbox size limit.

His organization unsuccessfully tried limiting employees in the UK and Europe to 10MB attachments. "This left people asking, 'What do I do when I need to send a file to a client?'" he says. "Our client-service people needed a good method for shipping large files around." These employees occasionally used third-party file download sites for attachments, but worried about security, he says. Some staff had to ask clients if they had an FTP site. US employees, who were not limited to 10MB attachments, caused problems when trading files with overseas colleagues. Plus, some executives had to be exempt from the rules.

Millward had to install hardware to solve the problem.

Perhaps you've considered using an FTP server to manage e-mails with large attachments. But that requires users to change their e-mail sending behaviour, and what is more important, FTP will eat up too much IT staff time.

"FTP is hard to manage," Osterman says. "An FTP server is just a junk drawer of messages. It's easier to control deletions with an archival system. You should have a retention schedule and a deletion schedule [for e-mail and attachments]. If you keep documents for one year, at one year and one day, the documents go."

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