By archiving e-mail, Mesquite Independent School District “took an enormous load off” its Exchange server, says Technical Services Director Dennis Hevron.

Jan 07 2009

Software Helps Schools Sort Through Spam

School districts turn to archiving systems to manage mountains of messages.

School districts turn to archiving systems to manage mountains of messages.

In the Dallas suburb of Mesquite — whose motto is Real. Texas. Flavor. — Dennis Hevron faced a Real. Big. Problem. E-mail, and lots of it.

As director of technical services for the Mesquite Independent School District, Hevron had to figure out what to do with the 60,000 messages that made it through the district’s spam filter each day.

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Once upon a time, Hevron’s job was much easier. If there was too much e-mail, he simply deleted it. Then in 2006, revisions to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure put businesses, governments and schools on notice that in the event of litigation, they might be required to hand over, among other types of electronic documents, pertinent e-mail from years past. But which messages? The federal law left that decision largely to the states, which left it to local school districts, which left it to users.

The result: Like school districts nationwide, Mesquite — which has 4,600 e-mail accounts — began hoarding every message it received until mail servers were overloaded and delivery slowed to a crawl. And forget about finding specific missives in a pinch — say, during a lawsuit — because locating individual messages was nearly impossible.

Lessening the Burden

Last August, Hevron began moving mounds of e-mail off the district’s 700 gigabyte central mail server and onto an 8 terabyte archive server running Symantec Enterprise Vault. “It took an enormous load off the Microsoft Exchange server, and I didn’t have to expand the central server to accommodate the mail,” Hevron says.

Mesquite ISD has established an e-mail retention policy and is working on mail system rules to enforce those policies. Under district guidelines, e-mail is moved from a mail server to an archive server after 30 days. How long a message stays there depends on its type: Administrative correspondence must be kept for at least three years, and general correspondence for at least one year. E-mail deleted by users resides elsewhere in the system for 30 days before it is purged entirely.

Mesquite school officials decide what e-mail should be considered official business. To complicate this process, the 2008 Texas Public Information Handbook published by the state attorney general’s office warns public officials that “the attorney general has determined in several informal letter rulings that e-mail correspondence in personal e-mail accounts can sometimes be subject to the [Public Information] Act.”

If the e-mail has been classified as an official record, e-mail that refers to a student’s performance or health would be covered by the state’s records-retention schedules. In Texas, schools are required to retain accident reports for five years and correspondence with parents for two years. “There are lots of rules and regulations,” says Hevron. “It gets pretty convoluted, so we leave it up to the users to classify whether something is a health record or something else. It’s hard for IT directors to make these decisions.”

Lara Farrar, MIS/WAN specialist at Chapel Hill–Carrboro (N.C.) City Schools, agrees: “We have all types of documents that are attached to e-mail. Some, like vehicle maintenance records, you’re supposed to keep for 30 years.”

That’s why the school district, which deployed an e-mail archiving system in April, doesn’t delete any e-mail — at least, not yet. “Right now, the policy is to archive everything for two years,” says Farrar. “But we’ve just begun this. So between now and two years from now, we’ll decide whether to keep everything or not.”

Making the Right Choice

For IT, deciding on an e-mail archiving system is easier than deciding what e-mail to keep. Here are some of the features that typically factor into the selection process:

  • Storage: Archiving software can compress data and block files based on size or format. There are other optimization tricks, as well. Trend Micro Message Archiver, for example, lets systems administrators reduce data storage by using a process called single-instance storage (also known as data de-duplication or intelligent compression). It’s a method of reducing storage by eliminating duplicate data; for example, an attachment that is sent to multiple message recipients would be stored once.
  • Search capability: With huge volumes of archived information, sysadmins need to be able to search not only for a particular item, but also all related items, regardless of their format (for example, whether a message was sent as an instant message or an e-mail).

    An important function of archiving is the ability to classify e-mail, either manually or automatically, for later retrieval. “One of the biggest benefits is that users can clean out their mailboxes and search for things on the archive as they need them,” says Alan Benezra, network administrator for the Montclair (N.J.) Board of Education. “The search capa­bilities of GFI MailArchiver are great.”

    The school district receives about 50,000 e-mail messages, including spam, each day, he says. After filtering, only 5,000 legitimate messages are archived and sent to users’ mailboxes.

  • Policy-based archiving: Some applications let users classify e-mail; others provide automated rules that sort and file messages. Some applications, such as Symantec Enterprise Vault, also can be configured to discard irrelevant e-mail and thus reduce volume.
  • Data protection: Sysadmins can quickly suspend the destruction of archived data in response to internal investigations, litigation or electronic-discovery requests. That includes data in e-mail, instant messages, files or shared documents.
  • Compatibility: One of the first features IT shops look for is compatibility with existing e-mail servers and software, most often Microsoft Outlook and Exchange Server.

How well the archiving software manages .pst (Personal Storage Table) files, particularly damaged .pst files, is also important. Exchange and Outlook users can create their own local repositories using .pst files. GFI MailArchiver, for example, flags .pst files as they are exported, so that they are not extracted and archived more than once.

“There are different reasons to archive,” says Mesquite ISD’s Hevron. “My school administration wants to do it for legal reasons. I want to do it to make room on the mail server. Either way, it gives us more breathing room.”

Quick Take: School E-Mail Archiving Regs Around the Country

School District of Palm Beach County (Fla.):

“Information Technology will delete all e-mail messages 365 days after the message is sent. District employees are encouraged to delete messages on a daily basis, immediately after reading, replying or taking other action concerning a particular message. If, according to state mandated records retention schedules, the content of an e-mail message possesses long-term business value, employees are required to either move the e-mail message to a personal folder on the computer’s hard drive or print the message and place it in the proper paper file for further retention. It is important to note that an estimated 90 percent of e-mail messages typically fall under the categories of nonrecord materials, notices with no business value or transitory messages and therefore should be deleted by both the sender and receiver immediately after the administrative value is lost.”

The Cobb County (Ga.) School District:

“Retention requirements included in the state retention schedules and any district schedules apply equally to electronic and paper records. Therefore, electronic records: 1. Are retained the same length of time as paper documents with the same content. 2. May be retained in electronic format if their retention period is not more than 15 years or they may be printed and retained in hard copy or micro-filmed, except for e-mail as provided below. As a general rule, they do not need to be retained in both formats. … (1) Retention of e-mail originating within the district is the responsibility of the originator. (2) Retention of e-mail originating outside the district is the responsibility of the recipient unless someone other than the recipient is designated to respond to it, in which case the responder is responsible for retaining both the original message and the response.”

Blue Ridge (Ariz.) Unified School District #32:

“The records management directives for the district do not currently distinguish among media types with regard to the definition of official records or with regard to the applicable retention and disposition criteria. In fact, there is no explicit mention of e-mail retention requirements in any school district policy manual; rather, it is treated within the broader context of ‘correspondence’ in terms of data retention. As such, electronic mail records are subject to these policies.”

Mesquite ISD by the Numbers

  • Number of staff: 2,669
  • Students and schools: 35,000 students; 45 campuses, including 31 elementary schools, eight middle schools, five high schools and the Mesquite Academy, an alternative-education­ campus of choice that offers accelerated instruction for nontraditional students
  • Network accounts: 30,500
  • File servers: More than200
  • Mail servers: One, running Microsoft Exchange; remote users must use Office Outlook Web Access
  • Number of e-mail messages received each day: More than 200,000

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