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KM can start with E-mail

This article appears in the issue May 1998 [Volume 7, Issue 7]

If your organization is like mine, you live and die with E-mail. It's how you share messages and files with colleagues. It's how you communicate with clients and suppliers. It's how you collaborate in team projects. It's how you get alerted to things you need to do. As the volume of fax and paper mail declines, that daily E-mail just keeps on rising.

In all probability, your E-mail system is the repository of corporate knowledge that you actually use most often. It probably also represents the largest set of informal records that exists about your business. In fact, use of E-mail for all these things is so repeatedly woven into the fabric of daily work that you just don't have time to take messages and attachments out of the mail system and save them on the local file system, or--are you kidding?--index them in a document management system. After reading a mail message, you want to just leave it in the E-mail inbox, or perhaps drag it to a selected mail subfolder. If you need to retrieve an item later, it can usually be found by browsing or querying on message properties.

But this strategy works only up to a point. Soon enough you start getting messages from your local system administrator informing you that your 20-MB allocation on the corporate message store is used up, and you better delete some stuff or move it someplace else. Products like Microsoft Exchange were designed to be short-term repositories at best, not a long-term archive. In fact, prior to Exchange 5.5, the message store was limited to 16 GB--that's only 800 users at 20 MB each, not what you'd call an enterprise solution from a storage standpoint.

Perhaps the simplest knowledge management investment your company could make today would be to turn that corporate E-mail system into a long-term archive. Ideally, with a mail archive, users could store their mail as long as they'd like on cost-effective media, and later find any message easily by searching both message properties (From, Date Received, Subject, etc.) and content. This shouldn't require document management--users don't care very often about version control, and they don't ever want to be forced to key in any index data--but just enough to give users ready access to their own stuff with little effort.

In the Microsoft Exchange environment, just such a solution has been introduced by Digital Equipment, called the Digital Enterprise Archive. The product provides a secure system-managed mass storage service for Exchange, scalable to terabytes of online and offline capacity using HSM, that preserves users' ability to find and restore archived files easily with low resource cost. All information in the archive, both online and offline, is indexed using Digital's AltaVista engine, and unlike a restore operation from a backup program, individual files are quickly retrieved to the requesting user.

As the largest integrator of Exchange in the corporate environment, with 2.5 million seats installed or under contract, Digital was the first to perceive the platform's lack of native capabilities or available third-party solutions for archiving. Backup products like ARCserve work well for disaster recovery, but are extremely resource-intensive for recovering old messages--you need to find a spare server with 10 GB to 20 GB of disk and recreate the entire message store--and they don't provide a searchable index. They are not suitable for the kind of message archive users need. Hierarchical storage management software allows migration of selected files to low-cost secondary storage like tape or CD, but HSM can't be applied directly to the Exchange message store, which is a large single database file. Exchange-based document management software, such as Eastman Software's DMX, can be used in conjunction with HSM, but this may be more than most users need just for archiving.

A Digital Enterprise Archive "site" is divided into multiple "archive stores," each managed in accordance with a set of specific policies governing which messages to archive, whether data is to be deleted from online storage, how the data is to be indexed and when to finally purge the data from indexes and the store. An archiving agent task runs in the background on the mail server, selecting messages to be archived and transferring that information to the store. Archived files may be deleted or replaced by shortcuts in a mail folder. Shortcuts can be copied or moved, mailed or deleted by the user. Clicking on a shortcut allows the user to view document details, or restore it from the archive.

Users search for archived information using a Web interface. The embedded AltaVista search engine allows searching on message metadata--including the original folder, title, recipients or send date--as well as the contents, including the contents of any attachments. Searching is restricted to sections of the store for which the user has access rights. If an item returned by the search is in online storage, it can be viewed immediately using the Web interface. Otherwise, the user can accumulate requested items in "shopping baskets." The items are automatically restored to the shortcut location or another specified location in local storage by an Exchange resident restoring agent. Unlike backup solutions, all of this occurs without administrator assistance.

The archive is not a replacement for centralized backup. You still need to back up Exchange--and the archive--for disaster recovery. But in a sense it does replace personal backups of desktop files and Outlook folders--the usual haven for old mail booted off the central Exchange message store--with a much lower level of effort for the individual user. For IT, it allows valuable data to be maintained in a safe, secure environment and frees up online media. More importantly, it allows users to do their own retrieval, a benefit to both users and administrators. It also allows messages to be retained as electronic records, demanded by regulation for some companies, by the courts in others.

Let's face it, users always want to take the path of least resistance. With E-mail, leaving messages and attached files in the mail system represents that path, especially if they get low-cost mass storage, advanced searching capability and painless retrieval in the bargain. It's not highfalutin, but mail archiving could provide a key piece of your company's knowledge management puzzle.


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