Email continuity can be costly

As organizations increasingly rely on email to conduct business, continuity becomes critical. In this piece, Alan Radding discusses examples of the negative effects a lack of email continuity can present and how products that truly deliver high availability can ultimately be a money saving investment for your business.

Email interruptions can be expensive. Native American Services Corp. (NASCO), a construction management company based in Smerlterville, ID, suspects one interruption may have cost the company a $75 million sale.

"Our Windows 2003 small business server crashed while we were working on a big proposal," says Shon Harris, NASCO information systems administrator. The company relies on email to communicate with its various contractors and subcontractors working on projects across the country as well to drive its sales proposal process.

The server failure threw Harris into overdrive working a 24-hour shift to get the aging server running. He brought it up only to see it quickly fail again. Before NASCO's email service finally was functioning, Harris had put in a second 24-hour shift. After two days without email service; "we needed to look at something else," he says.

In a survey of over 1,000 organizations, MessageOne found that 72% experienced unplanned email outages in the past year. Of those, 71% lasted longer than four hours.
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NASCO opted for Microsoft Exchange 2007 Enterprise, new hardware, and, most importantly, Neverfail for email continuity. The cost for the new server software, hardware and email continuity came to $118,000, but compared to the cost of an email crash Harris considers it a bargain. "We lost that $75 million deal," he says, and the email crash could have been the reason. Since putting in Neverfail, NASCO only experienced one 20-minute interruption of its Exchange server when Harris was updating its RAM, but didn't lose email service.

"Email is probably the number one mission-critical general application today," declares Stephen Foskett, Director, Data Practice, at Contural Inc., a consulting firm based in Mountain View, CA. And in the case of Microsoft Exchange, which represents that vast majority of corporate email, the loss of the Exchange server from a disaster or outage means the organization loses more than just email. "You loose calendars, group work and more," Foskett adds.

With so much at stake, "it is important that the email server be up all the time," says Sarah Radicati, president, Radicati Group, Palo Alto, CA. That means an email continuity strategy; simply backing up an email server isn't enough. Organizations need high email availability and continuity. Any number of vendors, from the largest server and storage companies to managed service providers, promise email continuity solutions.

Frequent failure

It is almost certain an organization's email server will fail. In a survey of over 1,000 organizations, MessageOne, recently acquired by Dell, found that 72% experienced unplanned email outages in the past year. Of those, 71% lasted longer than four hours.

The reasons were varied with most, 41%, resulting from data center or infrastructure problems, such as power or AC failures. Twenty-three percent resulted from Microsoft Exchange/Active Directory problems while 18% were due to hardware failures. Another 11% were caused by Internet or connectivity problems, including ISP and telecom failures.

Then, there are those related to natural disasters. Adams and Reese LLP, a leading regional law firm with a major presence in New Orleans had to abandon its offices in New Orleans for over two months, but having implemented an email continuity strategy based on MessageOne, the company never lost email. Instead, its email could be accessed via the Web from any Internet connection. "We spent 23 days running off MessageOne," says David Erwin, CIO.

Recovery vs. continuity

Organizations opt for a variety of strategies to protect their email, but not all provide email continuity. The most basic is to backup the Exchange server. "Virtually all companies backup Exchange, but backup is not true business continuity," says Michael Osterman, president, Osterman Research, Black Diamond, WA.

Backup addresses disaster recovery. When an email server fails or the data center is knocked out of service taking down the email server with it, backup allows the organization to recover the data and applications, including email, on a restored server. This constitutes email recovery; don't confuse it with email continuity.

The problem with relying on email backup for continuity is the time it takes to restore the email server. Depending on the nature of the problem and the size of the email server, it could take anywhere from a few hours to several days or longer to recover a failed server and restore email service. "The backup is probably 24-hours old and it takes, at best, half a day to restore the email server," says Andrew Barnes, senior vice president, Neverfail Group, Austin, TX. In the meantime, the company is dead in the water as far as email goes.

In many companies, individual workers on their own initiative switch over to personal Internet email through Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail and others until the email server comes backup. The individuals can maintain communication although the company loses whatever control it exercised through the email server. This is not really email continuity.

Email continuity is intended to enable the resumption of managed email service within minutes of its loss. In some cases, email users don't even sense an email problem; the failover to the email continuity system is automatic and transparent. "With email continuity the user should never realize email is down," says Barnes. Neverfail continuously replicates incoming and outgoing emails offsite and monitors the status of the system. In the event of an email failure, Neverfail immediately takes over.

Whether a company wants email recovery or continuity depends on how important it considers email and how long it can tolerate an email outage. "You have to ask what failed email means to the business," says Osterman.

In general, the faster a continuity product restores email service, the more it will cost. "The price of email continuity is based on the size of the mail system and how quickly you want your email back," says Greg Schulz, senior analyst, StorageIO, a research firm based in Stillwater, MN.

Email continuity options

Organizations have a choice of email continuity options. "There is everything from basic message spooling to fully replicated Exchange clusters," says Ian McDonald, general manager, ElectricMail, a hosted basic email continuity provider based in Burnaby, British Columbia. All email continuity options share several essential features: a way to capture incoming and outgoing messages, a way to store them outside the primary email server, and a way for users to access the stored messages and to send and receive email independent of the failed email server.

Microsoft's recommended continuity solution for Exchange is server clustering, and if you really want to do it right, you set up a second Exchange cluster at a remote site. "Basically Microsoft recommends remote clustering," says Foskett, but that is neither simple nor inexpensive. At a minimum an Exchange cluster doubles the required hardware and software, and if it is a remote cluster—required to continue through a disaster like Katrina or anything that renders the data center inoperable—plan to include the cost of telecom links too.

The clustering solution is just another form of replication and mirroring, which can be used for email continuity. Replication products replicate the email server and its incoming and outgoing messages to another set of servers, local or remote depending on the company's requirements. If something happens at the primary email site, the continuity system senses a problem and fails over to the secondary site. Users are redirected, either automatically or manually, and email can be up in running in seconds to minutes.

Big companies with large IT budgets do this kind of clustering, replication and mirroring for high availability as a matter of course. For them, the cost of including Exchange servers along with everything else amounts to incremental dollars in the overall business continuity budget. They not only have the budget but the technical skills to set up, synchronize and maintain a replicated email environment over time.

Email continuity appliances are simpler and cheaper. Jones Waldo, a law firm based in Salt Lake City, needed something that would provide email continuity comparable to clustering but could be set up quickly and maintained with minimal effort. With that requirement, the firm opted for an email continuity appliance from Teneros. "The price was right and we didn't have to do anything except flip the switch," says David Clark, MIS director. The Teneros price for one Exchange server and 250 mailboxes came to under $20,000. The cost for Exchange clustering would have been 40% greater or more, Clark estimates, and it wouldn't have been simple.

Adams and Reese opted for MessageOne's Internet-based email continuity product. MessageOne provides a hosted monitoring service. A piece of software runs at the Exchange server, captures all the messages, and sends them offsite. When the firm's email went down during Katrina, users found their email intact at a remote MessageOne data center and continued sending and receiving email via the Web. "Email is our top priority—even ahead of financials and document management—and the failover to MessageOne took five minutes," Erwin reports.

Email archiving vendors are looking at email continuity offerings, and the two capabilities seem like a natural together. However, email archiving by itself does not provide email continuity.

As organizations increasingly rely on email to conduct business, continuity becomes critical. Just as "archiving is not email continuity," says Schulz, neither is backup. Whatever email continuity approach you choose, look for products intended to deliver continuity and high availability.

Alan Radding researches, analyzes and writes about business and technology. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Business Week, CFO Magazine, CIO Magazine, Information Week, American Banker, Computerworld and many more.

This was first published in September 2008

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