Offload e-mail attachments to the cloud

When e-mail arrived more than 40 years ago it ushered in a way to share small text-only messages. The emphasis was on creating a system with no single points of failure, where all users would have a unique address on a ubiquitous system.

To that end, the mission was accomplished. E-mail is not only ubiquitous as a text messaging system across the globe, it now functions as the backbone of most organizations' digital communication and file transport systems. Having changed relatively little since its inception however, this 20th century innovation is too often overloaded by the demands of our current digital era.

Sorting through e-mail archiving tools

E-mail is now the common denominator for all digital interaction, including data transfer, personal and professional communication, and even notifications from other applications. Unfortunately, the system is buckling under the weight of what we expect e-mail to deliver, as we continue to leverage it as the default courier for every piece of digital communication.

According to Forrester Research, 87% of workers use e-mail as their main collaboration tool, which means a system originally intended for short messages is now being used as a repository for extensive messages that are accompanied by ever-growing file attachments. The result is longer wait times for e-mail messages to be sent and received and increasingly frustrated users who struggle to manage their way through an over-burdened system.

The average user sends and receives more than 40,000 e-mails per year, which takes up approximately 146 minutes per day, according to reports from Osterman Research. Because e-mail is seen as a social contract that we all communicate through and respond to, users feel guilty not clearing out the inbox at the end of the day, meaning more time spent organizing and managing e-mail messages and files. As a result, in many ways e-mail has become more of a barrier to productivity than an enabler of it.

As the prime conduit for exchanging information, the costs associated with e-mail continue to rise as inboxes expand. According to Osterman, between 20% and 25% of e-mails contain attachments, yet the attachments comprise 98% of e-mail traffic volume. Rather than port the attachments to the appropriate data storage centers, employees often use e-mail folders as a personal storage center. Much of a company's most sensitive information is sitting in an employee's inbox as a file attachment.

Consquently, e-mail is expensive to maintain, requiring continual investment in server hardware, security and storage as well as personnel to keep it up and running. Although storage costs continue to decline, according to Osterman, the cost of an IT department to deploy and manage a system can be five to eight times the cost of the actual storage solution.

The increasing volume of e-mail containing larger and larger attachments makes e-mail a compliance and management burden as well. Corporate networks go to great lengths to protect digital assets from getting out of the building. Companies commonly establish security policies that utilize username/password standards, encryption technologies and VPNs for remote access. However, with the click of a mouse users attach files containing that same safeguarded information and send it to an e-mail address outside of the company rendering all of these protections obsolete as the unencrypted file is copied to servers around the world as it makes its way to the intended recipient.

The issue poses a serious security risk since this process leaves unencrypted copies of files in a variety of places with little or no controls. Further, it leaves sensitive files in locations where little to no control on document retention policy is possible. How many times in recent years have we heard a litigation where files that represent work product of a given company were discovered to exist somewhere in the network due to the fact they had been e-mailed?

Clearly, there needs to be a way to use e-mail in the way it was intended, while at the same time allowing users and IT organizations to be as efficient and secure as possible. One possible way is to integrate a cloud-based e-mail attachment system into the everyday e-mail work flow that enables users to start and finish file transfers from within their existing e-mail system, while handling file attachments in a separate and specialized way. By incorporating a file attachment system, workers will be more likely to adopt the new system since they won't be forced to go outside of the current work flow to send files.

Cloud and software-as-a-service applications are flexible, cost-effective solutions that allow businesses to pick and choose which tools and services to maintain internally and which ones can be more efficiently managed in the cloud. By utilizing a cloud-based e-mail attachment system, businesses can alleviate a great deal of the ongoing hardware costs associated with e-mail by offloading the transport of file attachments.

It means companies can stop paying high prices to manage e-mail storage and instead pay a flexible rate to have attachment storage and management handled through a cloud provider. In turn, the IT department will be able to focus its attention on other aspects of the business, rather than spending significant chunks of time keeping up with e-mail.

Web-based attachment management systems also untether file sharing from the limits inherent to current e-mail systems, allowing a higher level of service ensuring files are transported directly through secure channels to the designated recipient. Cloud solutions eliminate the risk of transferring data without encryption, as the majority of attachment management solutions encrypt content, minimizing the risk of inadvertent data loss and providing IT managers greater piece of mind for about the security of information.

Companies experiencing an increase in e-mail storage, and time dedicated to managing e-mail, should consider cloud-based attachment systems. By shifting this small section of business operations to the cloud, companies can reduce hardware and staffing costs associated with e-mail while also improving productivity and the security of documents being sent to and from the company.

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This story, "Offload e-mail attachments to the cloud" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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