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White House e-discovery squeeze puts e-mail backup in focus

Experts say many organizations lack urgency to archive e-mail, handle discovery requests

By Brian Fonseca
February 14, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - As the White House contends with a federal judge's order to prepare a discovery plan amid a legal skirmish about missing e-mail, storage experts say businesses should move to improve backup and e-mail archiving policies to avoid similar legal problems.

District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly this week issued an order enabling the Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics watchdog group to perform limited questioning of White House officials. The group last May had filed suit against the White House Office of Administration seeking access to White House e-mail under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The nonprofit group had been seeking White House e-mail documents related to various controversial issues, including the release of the identity of a former CIA operative, the reasons for launching the war in Iraq and actions by the U.S. Department of Justice. The White House has contended that the e-mail requested by the group has been lost.

Kollar-Kotelly ordered the discovery to determine whether the Office of Administration is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The office contends it is not subject to FOI requests.

The watchdog group and the White House were ordered by the judge to submit a discovery plan to the court by Feb. 21.

Mike Osterman, president of Black Diamond, Wash.-based Osterman Research Inc., said many businesses operate under the false assumption that e-mail is not a business record. He said that most business and IT managers fall short of creating adequate e-mail archiving and policy-based data-retention processes.

"A lot of people are not implementing e-mail archiving [processes]; they're saving e-mail, but not in a cohesive or consistent way," said Osterman. "Companies can say 'Yes, we need to archive,' but [the process] must be policy-driven and taken out of users' hands."

Osterman said the White House's legal problems over its inability to recover e-mail from its own servers and backup systems may jolt end users into realizing the legal consequences of subpar retention policies.

"This should wake people up to what could happen if you don't save e-mail appropriately. It's a good shot across the bow and a very good lesson for senior managers," he added.

Osterman said organizations should outline each business unit's retention responsibilities by defining what type of data is considered business information and how long it should be stored.

Lauren Whitehouse, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. in Milford, Mass., said many organizations lack the ability to optimize backups and make important data easy to access. She said the White House e-mail flap should show IT managers that mismanaged backup processes can choke an organization's data-retention efforts.

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While Mr. Osterman raised some good points for consideration and seems to understand the need for sound RIM policies and practices, the use of the term "archiving" and subsequent comments from Ms. Whitehouse regarding "backups" continue to perpetuate the myth that these are Records and Information Management (RIM) practices. [read more]

"Everyone is afraid to throw anything away. All that [stored data] on the production system isn't pruned. It's all just continually backed up," said Whitehouse. "[Paranoia] is a characteristic of a lot of companies out there, and they're not repeatedly optimizing their backups."

In addition to e-mail archiving, Whitehouse said businesses can streamline their backup systems by "skimming" unchanged information from data sets being saved, instituting policies for incremental rather than full backups, and incorporating de-duplication and decompression into backup practices.

"I think in a lot of organizations backup has not been considered a [forward-thinking] strategy. As unsexy as it is, we need to make sure we're doing it right and we have the right level of resources applied to it," she said.

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