Drowning in e-mail?

It’s a back-end behemoth. Jokes, pictures, work documents, presentations and video clips. Companies are storing gigabyte upon gigabyte of items they don’t need, and they haven’t organized those they do so the end user can get at them.

“A lot of companies that didn’t manage their data retention by policy at the onset find it a lot more difficult to manage their policies from a cost perspective. There were no bounds on their mailboxes, and it just grows exponentially,” says Carl Jones, director of desktop and e-mail product management at The Boeing Co. in Chicago.

“What we’ve found is people will manage right up to their limit,” Jones says.

Even before Boeing installed Microsoft Corp.’s Exchange messaging and collaboration software in 1996, the company had already begun to cut back on the storage allotted to employees for their e-mail. Boeing used the messaging software to implement a strict policy allowing messages to be backed up for only 14 days and limiting each user to 15MB of e-mail storage space.

Jones says making end users responsible for managing their own information is a long-standing policy at Boeing, in part because of the economic benefits: The less data stored, the less hardware the company has to buy. And, to make individual business units aware of their usage, they are billed for messaging services as if they were customers. The messaging services are part of each unit’s operating budget.

The 15MB limit is a hard stop, Jones says. When a user approaches the limit, he’s warned automatically. And when a user hits the wall, he can receive but no longer send messages, Jones says.

Users are expected to move necessary messages, documents and attachments to a file storage system. “The effect is that they delete mail that they don’t need, and they store mail that they do need in another way,” like in the file storage system or on the company intranet, Jones says.

“By policy, if it’s something to be conducted for business, we ask that it be conducted on the Web,” he adds. “How we access that information is through the search engine on the Web.”

Steps to Take

Accessing stored information is the other key component of managing messaging mailboxes. Purging e-mail isn’t necessarily the right way to go about managing what is, in large part, a company’s intellectual assets, says Robert Gray, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

“It’s a penny-wise and pound-foolish policy,” he says. Instead, firms need to decide first how they will organize their data and, second, how will they handle their old, disorganized data in messaging systems.

“What are you doing when you’re purging stuff? You should have software with metadata that lets you get at it,” Gray says.

Existing knowledge management tools from the two major messaging and collaboration vendors, Microsoft and IBM subsidiary Lotus Software Group, can help, but they aren’t yet widely used, analysts say.

Gray says using a search engine can get at messaging stores, mostly by tagging files with metadata so they can be searched not only by author, but also by content and subject.

When messaging and collaboration systems do attempt to organize data, however, they look at more than just e-mails. They look at all objects in, for example, Microsoft’s Outlook/Exchange and Lotus Notes/Domino messaging systems, which contain address books, calendar and other information databases. Add unified messaging, with voice mail, fax, wireless pages and any other conceivable form of communication, and the communications database becomes much more unwieldy to maintain and to access.

“Unified messaging has failed in corporations. Part of the reason for this is that the systems that store voice mail are different from the systems that store e-mail. This results in poor integration from the user’s standpoint,” says David Ferris, president of Ferris Research in San Francisco.

Ferris analyst David Druker says Notes and Exchange don’t add much to the size of an e-mail file, but because they are relatively complex messaging systems, they “take lots of server CPU [cycles] to service users and manage their message stores.”

A Policy Vacuum

When it comes to e-mail, most companies turn a blind eye to the teetering stacks of messages their workers accumulate over weeks, months and even years.

A recent survey of corporations and their e-mail retention policies by Ferris Research in San Francisco revealed that users store huge volumes of data and that companies are soft on even the most egregious digital pack rats.

“Most companies still have no quotas and probably only crack down on staff when they have huge mailboxes of several hundred megabytes or more,” says Ferris analyst David Druker, although he notes that e-mail retention policies vary widely from company to company.

Boeing, which allows workers limited storage space for e-mail, is an exception, he says. But like Boeing, most companies let users manage their own e-mail storage, deciding whether to delete messages or save them as files, Druker says.

But the attitude toward e-mail storage appears to be changing. “Several respondents [said they were] interested in technology like e-mail archiving systems to help them centrally manage this mail,” Druker says. “Some want to hold on to the messages indefinitely, while others plan to destroy them after a few years.”

Another way to control the volume of saved e-mail is by filtering for inappropriate content.

“Quite a few companies filter e-mail or analyse its content to stop or remove large or legally questionable attachments,” Druker says.