Mona Heath, assistant CIO at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says it is important to draw a distinction between student and staff e-mail.
Aug 20 2007

Taming E-Mail

Growing attachment to e-mail makes managing and archiving a formidable challenge.

While online social networks, blogs and instant messaging may be many students’ preferred means of communication, information technology professionals at institutions of higher learning must continue to invest resources when it comes to maintaining, expanding and enhancing their institutions’ growing e-mail infrastructure.

E-mail is growing so much and so fast that it often requires its own storage system to archive and manage. Part of the growth is due to the use of Exchange or other e-mail programs for document management. Compliance plays a role — regulations dictate certain e-mail must be kept — but a pack rat mentality is also a factor.

So it’s no wonder that the total e-mail archiving market is expected to reach $1.2 billion this year, according to the Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based research and consulting firm. As wireless e-mail adoption increases — predicted to hit $6 billion this year — organizations will require even more storage and storage- management solutions.

Despite the rapid growth, e-mail is easier to manage if it is centralized throughout campus, archived in a central repository where it can be readily accessed, and monitored for usage patterns. E-mail often requires different policies for separate groups. For instance, faculty e-mail may need to be stored longer and is often considered more mission critical than student e-mail.

“People have a tendency to never want to delete anything,” says Marc Hoit, CIO and a professor in the civil and coastal engineering department at the University of Florida, Gainesville. “We are building a new enterprise-level storage solution and disaster recovery system for faculty and staff e-mail.”

The reluctance to delete anything carries over to the attachments that go along with e-mail. “Ninety-five percent of our storage growth is not [the] e-mail message itself — it’s the attachment,” says Jon Cutler, director of systems administration and security for university computing services at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. “It’s the Word document, the PowerPoint presentation, the nice, pretty PDF document that my advertising agency sent me that we’re collaborating on back and forth. The sent items and inbox save multiple copies of those.”

IT E-Mail Challenges:





Some colleges and universities, such as the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, offer alumni an e-mail address for life. While the address may change, with each graduating class the university’s IT department immediately adds a slew of new addresses to its e-mail roster. Most, if not all, institutions rely on e-mail to update students on classes, grades, social opportunities and new services. And the increasingly popular options of Web-based courses, remote classrooms and home-based study mean e-mail volume continues to flourish, even as other network-dependent communication methods enter the mix.

“The divergence between student and faculty/staff e-mail needs is perhaps the most interesting challenge, in that it has both technological and behavioral elements,” says Mona Heath, assistant CIO for strategy and communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “In particular, we need to provide students with a university e-mail address for official communications, but e-mail is less and less the communications tool of choice for students. As students gravitate to more interactive, real-time communications — such as instant messaging — the IT provider’s challenge shifts to providing connectivity any time and any place. Thus we have focused resources on enhancing campus wireless coverage, rather than on significantly expanding e-mail quotas, for example.”

The University of Florida’s Hoit says e-mail on his campus is largely decentralized and generally funded, maintained and operated by individual groups and departments. Two blade servers running Linux operate students’ e-mail accounts. However, the IT department is encouraging decentralized groups to turn over the maintenance, upkeep and budgets to the IT organization, and hopes that about 30 percent of the initially targeted group will have done so within about a year, he says. In the long term, the goal is for all e-mail servers and storage to be done centrally — at significant cost savings and efficiency improvements, says Hoit. Already, a number of the university’s departments have signed on for the centralized approach, he says.

“They’ve realized how difficult it is to manage a secure, complex e-mail solution,” Hoit says. “One of my large groups has transferred what it was spending each year over to the IT department, and they’re getting better, more secure service than they were before — and they were getting pretty good service then.”

Partly because of its existing investment in up to 100 Microsoft Exchange servers on-campus, the university will use this solution to operate and manage its e-mail, he says. Likewise, Indiana University is using a mix of Unix, Linux and Exchange to operate its e-mail system, says Dennis Cromwell, associate vice president for enterprise infrastructure at the Bloomington-based eight-campus university.

“We support about 200,000 unique mailboxes. Some constituents have multiple mailboxes. We have departmental accounts and other situations: 40,000 of the mailboxes are in a Microsoft Exchange environment targeted primarily at faculty and staff,” says Cromwell. “The 160,000 [Internet Message Access Protocol] mailboxes are in Linux and Unix and support students, as well as some faculty and staff.”

If you divide e-mail users into two groups — administrative and student/alumni — there is less need for security and long-term storage in the student portion of the e-mail community, says Mark Levitt, program vice president of IDC’s Collaborative Computing and Enterprise Workplace research. “Their usage is often very light. They have a tendency to use IM, Voice over IP and cell phones more than older corporate workers [do]. It may not be mission critical. At the same time, universities need to provide e-mail. They don’t want to be perceived as behind the times in their use of technology.”

Head for the Archives

Users on campus also want their mail to be available at all times. Marshall’s Cutler would like to expand his CommVault backup software setup to handle e-mail archiving, but there are fears on campus that it would hinder availability.

“There’s concern that customers on campus are going to be out of touch with their data,” he says. “Even though we tell them we’ll stub information out, there’s a concern that we’re doing it differently than how we’ve always done it.

“Our system has been very reliable for us, and I think that builds in a bit of complacency. But it’s more a question of when and not if we’ll need to archive.”

He says Marshall is running Exchange 2003 with a storage area network (SAN). His department uses a Windows 2003 high-availability cluster. He says he considers his setup reliable, but archiving is like insurance. If e-mail is safely archived in a central repository, it is backed up and less likely to be lost in the case of a system crash or natural disaster.

“We’re seeing a lot higher availability with EMC SAN storage, Microsoft clusters, CommVault and Exchange 2003, but at the same time bad things can occur,” Cutler says, pointing to server crashes and data corruption. “We need to be able to respond when it does happen. Our recovery time depends on how much information we have to recover.”

Keep an Eye on E-Mail

The University of Detroit Mercy uses its backup solution to also help monitor e-mail usage and manage expansion plans, says Martin Frankhouse, network manager, who determined the university’s storage requirements had increased sharply over the last three to four years. One reason: the preponderance of e-mail. Detroit Mercy integrated BakBone Software’s NetVault: Report Manager into its Exchange-based solution, which improved growth forecasting and server space utilization, he says.

The university now can obtain statistics on which students and faculty are using the most space, sending the most e-mails and receiving the most e-mails, along with the size of those e-mails.

“Having all this reporting functionality in one integrated system is a great time saver,” says Frankhouse. “I can easily define and schedule jobs or reports while continuing to monitor activity from a unified console that presents a ‘big picture’ of what’s going on in my increasingly complex environment.”

Keep It Inside?

Outsourcing e-mail is an option, but that raises concerns over whether the outsourcer can guarantee privacy and security of the e-mail. Do you want to trust your e-mail to an outsider?

Again, IT might have to draw a line between student and staff mail. If they do outsource, institutions are more likely to do so for only student e-mail while keeping faculty and staff e-mail in-house. The University of Florida probably would not consider moving to a hosted e-mail provider for faculty and staff any time soon, Hoit says.

“Cost and dollar wise, it’s very effective,” he says. “The option to go with Google or Microsoft to outsource and reduce e-mail expenses by $200,000 is worth investigating. [However,] there is no such thing as a free lunch.”

If they decide to operate their e-mail systems internally, IT professionals then must determine the most cost-effective, efficient and compliant means of storage.

The e-mail storage, security and compliance issues of today will only graduate to bigger concerns, as communication methods advance to even greater levels of sophistication and size.

“We need to evolve our use of e-mail as just one of several ways that we communicate,” says Indiana University’s Cromwell.

“We see a convergence to allow our constituents the ability to communicate with each other in ways of choice, including voice, e-mail, instant messaging and texting. We need to implement an infrastructure and migrate our applications from being e-mail-enabled to being communication-enabled.”

And that means more data — in more formats — that must be managed, stored and secured.

System Overload

  • 97 billion e-mails will be sent daily worldwide in 2007.
  • 40 billion of those e-mails will be spam.
  • Annual volume of business e-mails sent worldwide will approach five exabytes in 2007.

Ups and Downs of Passwords

Don’t underestimate effective use of passwords to secure e-mail. Using a regular PC, a hacker trying to crack a password can test up to 10 million passwords per second. If it is an eight-character password that contains just letters in either all capital or all lowercase letters, it would be compromised in less than six hours. Using a mixture of upper and lowercase letters and numbers could take the same hacker up to eight months to break, while using a 15-character password with just letters could take 50,000 years to hack.

SOURCE: University of Massachusetts Lowell, IT department,