Why - and how - you should consider the potential impact of email downtime on your organization
November 9, 2010
This article is modified from a whitepaper for GFI Software, Email Continuity - Protecting Your Business against Email Downtime by David Kelleher, Communications and Research Analyst. GFI is a content partner of TechSoup Global.
Email has become deeply ingrained in nonprofit operations. Internal communications are often accomplished more by email than by phone or face-to-face meetings. Communications with external constituents, donors, partners, and other organizational contacts are perhaps even more dependent on email. Calls and meetings are scheduled by email; decisions are made based on email correspondence; inquiries, proposals, and contracts are sent by email; communications both mundane and critically important are these days handled by email more than by any other medium.
Organizations have become so accustomed to using email that even a few minutes of server downtime is enough to have employees and managers quickly calling the helpdesk. While a minute or two of email server downtime is not catastrophic, no organization can function effectively if downtime increases to hours or days.
Risk management and business continuity planning exercises should include email uptime as a priority. Organizations must not confuse email continuity with email archiving or email backups. The latter are suitable and necessary for disaster recovery but not for providing continued and seamless use of email when hardware or software errors occur or when a more serious disaster strikes.
Outages and Their Impact on Organizations
Email downtime and outages are an organizational reality. At some point something will go wrong, and most organizations are caught unaware. Computer hardware will eventually fail, occasionally before scheduled replacement. Email or operating system software may experience errors. Data can become corrupted. And external events such as network problems, flooding, or power cuts are rare, but they do happen.
Indeed, email outages are common, and, according to Osterman Research, email systems experience a mean of 53 minutes of unplanned downtime during a typical month, or 10.6 hours over a year. This is why organizations need to consider the potential impact of email downtime:
- Reduced productivity. Osterman estimates that employees become 25% less productive when their email system is down.
- Loss in output. Organizations that use email for transaction processing, service delivery, client requests, and other communications with constituents are at most risk of losing funding or losing clients when email is unavailable.
- Compliance or regulatory risks. If an organization experiences hardware or software problems with its mail infrastructure, without sufficient safeguards, important emails could be lost. Those organizations that must comply with regulations or laws related to electronic data may also face compliance issues from the loss of those messages.
- Reputation risk. Organizations dealing with clients on a daily basis cannot afford to appear unprofessional. Requests for information that are not answered within a reasonable time frame may negatively impact the image of that organization in terms of its perceived competence, reliability, and professionalism.
Overcoming Email Outages
The good news is that email outages can be easily mitigated, at nominal expense. Unfortunately, many organizations fail to distinguish between the concept of an email backup or an email archive solution, and an email continuity solution.
While most organizations have a disaster recovery strategy in place, that strategy typically involves rebuilding hardware and/or software, and recovering historical email data from a backup or archive solution. This is different from having continued access to email during an outage. How should an organization continue its work in a seamless fashion during the hours or even days that it may take to rebuild its infrastructure in the event of hardware or software failure - or worse, a regional disaster?
What organizations need is a system or service that provides continuous email functionality regardless of what has happened to the customer's network, server, or data. To ensure mail and organizational continuity that is not dependent on the customer's local network, organizations need an off-site service that allows them to continue their critical email communications, including the ability to access email that has been sent to the company while their infrastructure is down as well as the ability to respond to those emails.
Hosted Email Continuity: Options
An externally hosted email continuity service allows organizations to avoid lost productivity, lost service, and other consequences that arise from email outages. Three services fall under this general category:
- Queuing only. Messages are spooled when they cannot be delivered, typically when a mail server goes offline. Users do not have access to those messages until their mail server is back online, after which the queuing service delivers the queued messages. Emails are not lost; however, productivity is greatly reduced, so a queuing-only solution is not a true continuity solution.
- Continuity via queuing and integrated mail service. In this case, messages are spooled when they cannot be delivered. Additionally, users have full access to those messages while their mail server is offline, via a web-based mechanism independent of the customer's network. At that website, users can view those messages, respond to them, and create new ones. When the mail server is back online, the service delivers any messages still in queue. No emails are lost, and productivity is not affected. This is an effective email continuity solution that can be implemented without undue complexity.
- Rolling continuity. Instead of messages being spooled only when the server is down, all messages are continually spooled and stored on disk for a week or longer. If the customer's mail server goes offline or certain data becomes corrupted, an administrator can "play back" a stream of previous email messages from the past, say, seven days. Typically, users also have access to an integrated web-based mechanism to access those messages if the customer's mail infrastructure becomes unavailable. This is a sophisticated email continuity solution, although it can be expensive and complex to implement.
The use of a hosted email continuity service is important regardless of what solution may be in place for email backup or email archiving. Due to the risks with an on-premise solution falling prey to the same problem affecting a customer's mail server or local network, an externally hosted continuity service is a viable option for ensuring continued access to email functionality in the event of a problem with the customer's own infrastructure.
Benefits of a Hosted Email Continuity Service
A hosted email continuity service with integrated mail functionality provides organizations with numerous benefits, including:
- The organization does not need to invest in new hardware or new systems.
- Continuity is automatic and immediate, requiring no action from the IT team when the outage occurs.
- Employees can continue to work, accessing and replying to emails.
- No emails are lost.
- Organizations required to keep copies of emails will have no compliance or regulatory issues.
- IT staff do not need to invest time in training for outages or maintenance, freeing up their time for other tasks.
- Peace of mind: Even in the event of an outage, pressures to solve the problem are reduced since an interim solution is in place; this reduces the risk of errors during the recovery process.
Thus, under any circumstances - ranging from a brief, planned mail server upgrade to a major network outage caused by a natural disaster - organizations can maintain a high level of business continuity with minimal effort.
About the Authors:
David Kelleher is Communications and Research Analyst at GFI Software, an infrastructure provider for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). David has over 20 years' experience writing for a variety of publications with a strong end-user focus across all verticals. He is particularly interested in end-user education and writing about security for non-technical people, security awareness in SMBs, and all research related to market perceptions and security. He is a regular contributor to GFI's SMB Zone.
GFI Software works to provide the best quality, most cost-effective content and network security and messaging solutions to IT professionals in the SMB market worldwide.
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