Special delivery: IT looks to keep the e-mail flowing

The sheer volume of e-mail now puts a staggering load on network and servers

As any e-mail administrator will tell you, managing the content of the constant flood of incoming and outgoing messages is only half the battle. The sheer volume of e-mail, coupled with the increasing size of files that users want to send, also puts a staggering load on the network and servers. At the same time, end users are resisting attempts to limit the size of their in-boxes, demanding the right to stash gigabytes of mail and attachments on the server. IT clearly needs a strategy to manage the e-mail flood.

The first step is deploying a good e-mail monitoring and reporting tool, advises Scott Bueffel, messaging administrator at Con-way Inc., a $3.7 billion provider of global supply chain services based in San Mateo, Calif. He persuaded management to let him buy Quest Software Inc.'s Spotlight on Exchange and MessageStats reporting and monitoring tools when e-mail performance problems kept cropping up and he couldn't pinpoint the problem with his existing tools.

"In the past, if we had a lot of message traffic on a particular day and management wanted to know where it was coming from and why, I'd have to say, 'I can't tell you. I don't have the tools to identify it,' " says Bueffel, noting that native message-tracking utilities are only useful for diagnosing problems with a single e-mail.

Spotlight monitors e-mail services and provides information on things such as available storage and the size of the routing queue. MessageStats enables Bueffel to run reports on a range of usage statistics.

"We use it for all manner of reporting, based on traffic, volume, growth, forecasting," says Bueffel.

According The Radicati Group Inc., the average corporate e-mail user sends and receives a total of 133 messages, or about 16.4MB of data, per day. IDC estimates that the size of business e-mail sent annually worldwide will exceed 3.5 exabytes (3.5 billion gigabytes) this year, double the amount of two years ago.

The need for organizations to implement e-mail management software -- specifically, monitoring, reporting and archiving tools -- will become more urgent, say experts, as the volume of mail puts greater stress on storage and bandwidth resources.

"The growth in e-mail has been steady and huge, to the point that everybody is having major storage and performance problems," says David Via, an analyst at Ferris Research in San Francisco.

And because users rely so heavily on their e-mail these days, they tend not to tolerate delays in message delivery. "People expect the messages to go from here to there in a matter of seconds. They don't care how many messages, or what the architecture is like," says Bueffel. "They just expect that when they click Send, it should be there."

Monitoring for Bottlenecks

Although e-mail servers such as Exchange come equipped with utilities, they often can't provide the depth or breadth of information that e-mail managers need in order to diagnose -- and anticipate -- problems.

"Using the native message tracking [in Exchange], I could see where some of the e-mail was going, but I wasn't able to isolate where it was coming from," says Bueffel. "We needed a more general reporting tool."

Henry Yiin, manager of systems engineering at IXIS Capital Markets North America Inc. in New York, relies on Network Physics Inc.'s NP-2000 appliance to monitor traffic volume across the network and to and from the Exchange server. That has helped him pinpoint the source of problems -- whether it's the network, Exchange or some other application -- fairly rapidly.

But monitoring e-mail storage has been more of a challenge. Yiin is using a homegrown Perl script to check storage levels on the Exchange server and associated SAN devices every 10 minutes. The Exchange server can, however, suddenly outstrip its available disk space and crash. "If storage gets to 99% capacity, the residing data stores shut down. That can happen in just a couple of minutes," Yiin says.

Since having the Perl script run more frequently would consume too much CPU time, Yiin is looking for a commercial e-mail monitoring and reporting tool to replace it. "We want both real-time monitoring of the SAN status and good reporting," he says.

Sara Radicati, CEO of The Radicati Group, says she believes the market is ripe for better tools to configure, monitor and plan e-mail systems. "That whole area has a lot of growth potential ahead," she says. "People need a lot of intelligence on performance, capacity planning, pinpointing potential problems before they occur."

To make it easier for IT to spot problems quickly, vendors are adding visual features such as graphics of the network and e-mail traffic flows, she adds.

For example, Con-way's Bueffel uses the Topology Viewer feature in Spotlight on Exchange. Data collected by Spotlight -- such as the SMTP and MAPI connections, the available storage, and response time of the mailbox store -- is displayed in both a diagnostic console and graphical topology viewer. "You can see where there is a bottleneck," says Bueffel. He uses the MessageStats reporting tool to help him identify trends and forecast Con-way's future Exchange capacity needs. The reporting and modeling capabilities also help him stay ahead of demand, Bueffel says.

University Health System Inc. (UHS) in Knoxville, Tenn., employs DYS Analytics Inc.'s Control to manage its Exchange servers and diagnose problems with e-mail delivery or configuration issues. UHS also uses Argent Software Inc.'s Guardian database monitoring product to watch for bottlenecks in the e-mail databases and queues.

"If the server stops, it will restart it for me or page me for other problems. It's like having an extra employee keeping an eye on things," says systems manager Jerry Hook.

Managing the Volume

To help reduce the load on the e-mail server, many companies move older messages and attachments off of it and onto a separate network server. E-mail archiving tools can make it easy for users to access archived e-mail alongside their current in-boxes.

Nino Silvano, CIO of Argix Direct Inc., a logistics service provider for the retail industry, uses EMC Corp.'s EmailXtender software to move e-mail that is more than 30 days old to an archive that users can search. By offloading the messages from the Exchange server, users can be allotted more room for current mail -- up to 2GB per mailbox, though few ever need that much, says Silvano.

"We had a 180GB message store that we brought down to 30GB," he notes.

At UHS, e-mail archiving on the Veritas Enterprise Vault has made a big difference in performance. "It keeps my e-mail databases slim so they're running fast," says Hook.

He also saves space by using the DYS Control administrative software, which helps with housekeeping tasks such as cleaning out unused mailboxes. With 4,200 employees -- and frequent turnover for some positions -- abandoned mailboxes can use a lot of space.

"This gave me the reports I was looking for to isolate the mailboxes that needed to be deleted. There were about 1,000 of them," says Hook.

He also recommends configuring e-mail servers to reduce traffic. UHS uses Control to identify the departments and users that exchange the highest volumes of e-mail. Hook then locates those mailboxes on the same Exchange server. "That way, the mail isn't always going over your network," says Hook. The strategy also helps when the mail contains large attachments, like graphics files and PowerPoint presentations.

Large attachments have been a problem for Ray Martin, the IS technical manager at Monrovia Nursery Co. in Azusa, Calif. "We have had some PowerPoint presentations of 120MB that go out to a dozen people, and all the other outbound e-mail backs up behind them," says Martin. "We've attempted to restrict the attachment sizes, but the limits just keep going up."

Shared file spaces and FTP sites are an obvious solution. But it's often very difficult to persuade employees to use those options, when clicking "attach" in their e-mail clients is so easy to do. So Martin has turned to TrafficShaper, a tool from Packeteer Inc. that's designed to ensure that big attachments don't block the network.

Traffic prioritization tools recognize different types of IP traffic and allot different amounts of bandwidth to each, based on organizational policies. Some time-sensitive services, such as voice over IP or virtual private networking, might guarantee that a small amount of bandwidth is always available.

"We don't want huge attachments blocking customer traffic from our Web site or employee VPN traffic from our remote locations," says Martin. "This gives us guaranteed quality of service and helps to juggle all the priorities."

Hildreth is a freelance writer based in Waltham, Mass. She can be reached at Sue.Hildreth@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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