A tonic for e-mail server overloads

Since electronic files aren’t likely to be getting smaller any time soon, companies are increasingly looking for alternative ways to share large ones and take some of the pressure off their e-mail servers.

For Opti Canada, a Calgary-based firm in the oil and gas sector, sharing large files by e-mail quickly became untenable. The company is in the midst of a long-term project to build an oil sands facility in Fort McMurray, Alta., and Sean Murray, Opti Canada’s senior network administrator, said the company is working with a number of contractors on the project.

Large architectural drawings need to be shared regularly between Opti Canada and its contractors, sometimes across different networks in the same building and sometimes between Calgary and Fort McMurray. Murray said they originally tried to share files by e-mail, zipping and splitting them to make transmission easier.

“It just wasn’t user-friendly when we started to grow; there were too many people and it just wasn’t happening,” said Murray.

It next moved to a system of saving files on a USB key and passing it around, a method Murray said worked well enough when files were being shared within the same office but became cumbersome when some distance was involved.

“Our big concern was the loss of a key with information on it,” said Murray. “There are encryption solutions for that, but it just wasn’t as seamless as it [could] be.”

Murray said they considered a number of options, including building Microsoft SharePoint portals where each of the contractors could share files, but in the end decided that the Accellion Secure File Transfer Appliance (SFTA) from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Accellion Inc., was the best fit.

The Accellion product is an appliance that sits in the data centre and can take over large file duties from the e-mail server. Instead of sending the file with the e-mail, the recipient gets a link to go back and get the attachment directly from the Accellion appliance, which can also provide File Transfer Protocol (FTP)-like functionality.

“Typically, if there’s any distance involved, it’s going to shorten the time to get large volumes of data between users considerably,” said Murray.

Opti Canada is doing acceptance testing of the Accellion appliance and plans to roll it out by the end of the month. Murray said it will initially restrict SFTA to large files only, and continue to use Microsoft Exchange for smaller attachments.

Accellion CEO Yorgen Edholm said e-mail servers were never designed to handle such high volume of attachments, and attachment glut has become a major pressure point on the e-mail server. “(With SFTA) the attachment is stripped off before it ever hits the mail server,” said Edholm.

Noting that some IT managers are concerned about other appliances even getting too close to the e-mail server, Edholm said Accellion’s appliance interfaces directly with the e-mail client, such as Microsoft Outlook. An Accellion button is created on the Outlook toolbar, or can be programmed to replace the paperclip, so the attachment never hits the mail server.

He added that SFTA also includes features that let users track the files they’ve sent and when, and if the file has been opened by the intended recipient.

While originally intended to solve e-mail server pressure, Edholm said he has been surprised by the number of businesses that have been using the product for other functions, including replacing their FTP sites.

Accellion recently released version 5.0 of SFTA, and Edholm said that, based on customer feedback, it now includes the ability to send and receive folders and maintain the hierarchy, something he said he’d never anticipated adding originally.

“Sometimes, when you listen to customers, they’ll drag the product in directions you’d never anticipated,” said Edholm.

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