Netmail Blog

The Blues Brothers and Email Storage Bloat

Posted by Michael Osterman

Jan 27, 2014 4:40:00 PM

Email is the primary way that information workers communicate with others. In a recent Osterman Research survey of 170 mostly mid-sized and large organizations (median organization size was 2,000 employees), we found that 78% are “highly dependent” on email for communication and another 16% classify themselves as “dependent”.

That corroborates other Osterman Research end user surveys that find information workers spend about 2.5 hours per day doing something in email – sending or receiving messages, looking for files, managing tasks, managing contacts, etc. Moreover, email is used more per day than the telephone, instant messaging and social media combined.

Our survey also found that email is used heavily for collaboration – 40% of the respondents told us that their organizations are “dependent” on email for collaboration and another 34% are “highly dependent”. Email has become the de facto file-transfer solution in most organizations – the result is that 98% of the bits that flow through email are actually files, not email messages.

So, while seemingly obvious to most information workers, our research corroborates that email is the “go-to” solution for communication and collaboration, two of the most critical activities performed by information workers on a daily basis.

“IS THAT SERIOUS?”

That was the question asked by ‘Joliet’ Jake Blues (John Belushi) of his brother Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) in the movie The Blues Brothers after the latter stated, “We’ve thrown a rod” – during what is arguably the best car chase scene in any movie ever made.

But it’s also the question that every email administrator, IT manager and CIO should be asking given the extraordinary dependence of most information workers on the corporate email system.

Is the use of email for communication and collaboration a serious problem? In concept at least, not really. Email provides tremendous utility, it is ubiquitous and it’s easy to use. Consequently, using it extensively for communication and collaboration is, at least on the surface, not a problem at all.

However, in the way that email is currently managed in most organizations, it’s a very serious problem and one that decision makers must address as a top priority.

The fundamental difficulty that organizations encounter when email is used as the primary communication and collaboration tool is email storage bloat. Our survey found that 10% of organizations believe storage bloat in their email system is “a very serious problem”, while another 24% view it as “a significant problem”. Other Osterman Research surveys have found that about one-half of the leading problems that IT encounters when managing email are focused on difficulties related to excessive storage.

However, the underlying problems of email storage bloat are actually much more serious. For example:

  • 55% of those surveyed view as a serious problem the fact that their corporate mailboxes are overloaded.
  •  50% view increasing backup and restore times as a serious problem.
  • Other problems were cited as “serious”, including increasing message size (42%) and lack of messaging-related disk space (31%).

In short, the functional problems associated with email storage bloat are several: poor email server performance, long backup times, long restore times, reduced email server reliability, and bandwidth constraints on the corporate network.

WHAT IS IT DOING ABOUT THE PROBLEM?

In response to the problem of email storage bloat, most organizations impose mailbox-size quotas – in fact, 71% of email users are subject to a mailbox-size quota, with the median size of the quota being only 500 megabytes.

Do mailbox-size quotas help in managing email storage? Those we surveyed say “yes” – 42% of those in our survey believe that quotas help “quite a bit” and another 9% said they help “a great deal”. However, while quotas may solve some of the email storage bloat problem, they can create a new set of more serious issues that might actually be more difficult to solve than just excessive storage in email.

WINNING THE BATTLE, BUT LOSING THE WAR

The immediate impact of a mailbox-size quota to address the problem of email storage bloat is to keep a lid on the sheer volume of content that users store on an email server. In a limited sense, that’s helpful because it prevents email storage from growing out of control, it can help to keep email server backup times to reasonable levels, and it allows IT to restore a failed email server more quickly than if storage were allowed to grow in an unfettered way.

However, while the use of mailbox-size quotas can provide some limited, tactical help in addressing the problem of email storage bloat, it actually leads to much more serious and strategic problems:

Because email continues to be used extensively (four in 10 users are using email more today than they were 12 months ago), and because users often share large files via email, users run into mailbox-size quotas frequently.

  • Faced with bumping up against a mailbox-size quota, users will often create local archives to offload content from the email server in order to keep email operational. Our research found that 34% of users create local .PST files to circumvent quotas, 10% store content in personally managed cloud repositories, and 9% actually print (!) messages.
  • This means that a growing proportion of important business records – email threads, proposals, contracts, purchase orders, etc. – can be stored in employee-managed venues and accounts, leaving it unavailable to the organization at large. This creates a serious risk for decision makers, legal counsel and others who often are not able to find content when they need it, such as during eDiscovery exercises, regulatory audits, early case assessments and the like.
  • The result is an organization that faces increased risk simply because it cannot find all of its relevant business records – and may not even know that these records exist.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE TO FIX THE PROBLEM?

The vast majority of those we surveyed have an interest in restoring IT control of this content, not keeping control in the hands of individual users. We found that while 42% have a “modest” interest in taking back control of the message and attachment problem, 31% have a “strong” interest in doing so – only 16% of organizations actually want to leave resolution of the problem up to end users.

One of the ways in which organizations can resolve this issue is by using an attachment management solution that strips files from emails and sends them independently of the mail system. For example, a user can still attach a file to an email and click on the Send button. However, an attachment management solution will automatically strip out the attachment, replace it with a link, and then store a single copy of the attachment that can be accessed by all recipients of the message. The advantages of this approach are several:

  • Email storage bloat is reduced dramatically.
  • Users spend much less time managing their mailbox in order to stay under their mailbox-size quota.
  • IT remains in control of all corporate content instead of having it distributed in .PST files, in employee-managed Dropbox accounts, or on local hard drives.
  • Email server backups and restores are much faster because there is less content under storage.
  • Overall storage requirements are reduced because of the single-instance nature of attachment management storage.

SUMMARY

In short, email storage bloat is a serious problem that is getting worse, but there is a simple way to address the issue that will provide dramatic functional improvements and help an organization to manage its content in compliance with its legal, regulatory and internal policy obligations.

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