If you live in the Northeast, odds are that you looked out your window a couple of weeks ago and saw snow falling from the sky. Parts of the region were buried under more than three feet of the white stuff, paralyzing the population. The bright side of any blizzard is that the snow, no matter how much, eventually melts away. The same is not the case for email.


Imagine for a minute that that snow wasn't made up of crystallized water but of email messages -- one note for each flake. Imagine those emails piling up around your ankles, eventually reaching your knees and then burying you up to your waist, paralyzing you. And they are never going to melt away to nothing. Never. Ever.

90 Trillion Emails a Year

In 2010, the Radicati Group issued a study stating that during that year there were approximately 294 billion emails sent per day, 90 trillion a year. That's trillion. With a “t”.

Take that figure and think about where all these emails go: corporate servers, commercial ISP’s, backup servers, backup tapes and so on. And while they are in transit to these various destinations, they are being replicated multiple times for disaster recovery, archiving and a variety of other purposes. Once these files are tucked away in their resting places, they often don’t see the light of day ever again, with a few exceptions.

One of the biggest exceptions is during litigation.

It's All Fun and Games Till Somebody Gets Slapped with a Lawsuit

A recent headline of the New York Times DealBook blog was “Just CC the Justice Department on Those Emails,” a cheeky suggestion/observation on the current spate of litigation happening within several financial services giants. Large-scale events including the continuing mortgage mess and the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal are seeing email as the key source of evidence as prosecutors search for methods and motives within the global financial meltdown.

What these firms and many others are finding out is that once a thought is put into writing via email, odds are that that thought is permanently etched somewhere in the IT infrastructure. Technology vendors are not helping the situation.

Products to allow the storage of bigger and bigger email collections form a market unto themselves. Applications like Enterprise Vault, SourceOne and a litany of others continue to generate massive revenue for their developers by giving IT professionals what seems like a limitless ability to store email messages.

Starting with Exchange 2010, Microsoft has even bundled archiving capabilities within the application itself. That development, of course, is not enough for the industry. Pretty much any archive vendor will scream from the mountaintops that third party archiving is still necessary to meet various regulatory requirements. More copies in more places for longer periods of time. Keep everything forever. Don’t even think about it, just store it.

Where has all of this gotten us? Depending on your perspective, the answer is either A. we've gotten a little ahead of the problem or B. we've actually lost ground and have created a bigger, worse problem than we had before.

Bigger Email Archives Means... 

The A camp’s argument can be made in that we have more advanced systems to capture emails and store them as a repository separate from the rest of the data housed in an IT infrastructure. Since the purpose was to treat email based on its individual storage requirements, a partial victory can be claimed.

Managing email archives has become its own massive burden independent from the rest of IT’s massive burden. And, while we've set up a whole separate house for email to live in, we've given it an unlimited ability to replicate itself and hide in every corner of the data center.

Finding individual messages in 500TB archive is tough. Finding the ones you no longer need and purging them to mitigate risk is even tougher. And that doesn't take into account the tens of thousands of PST’s that are sitting on almost every spindle in the room. So yes, we've segregated email so we can treat it like the beast that it is, but we've managed to give in endless size and immortality at the same time.

This is where the B side argument comes in. Like the Mariner in Coleridge’s tale, exclaiming “Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink,” we find ourselves surrounded by data that should have great value, but in reality is dangerous due to its very scale and makeup. By building an ever-widening matrix of ways and places to store email messages, we have created an impenetrable sea of data with no visible bottom. The costs to find the message needle in the email haystack have grown to all-time highs as a result of the fear and, more so, the inability to keep only what is needed for long-term retention.

Data is put away in an archive because it has value at some point. Over time, the business value decreases while the risk of holding that message may increase. Companies with a five-year retention requirement that are sitting on 15 years of data can bet that ALL of that data will be called into play during litigation, not just the pieces that they were supposed to save.

The memo from 10 years ago calling into question the safety of that widget? Print it on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. That email that the CEO sent to his niece telling her not to drink the water at the cabin because something bad may or may not have happened at the plant across the way? The good news is that it was purged from the Exchange server and again from the Zantaz vault according to policy. But what about the copy in the PST file on the shared drive that the CEO’s well-meaning admin created the day after the email was sent? Yeah, that’s right -- front page of the New York Times on Monday. Above the fold.

So what do we do about all this? A good place to start is to take a very hard look at how and where you are storing your emails. This is an exercise that you should probably do on your own. Don’t assume that your storage vendor is your partner in fixing this problem. They are the ones that sold you all the disk to keep this on, right?

If you were somehow able to pluck the valuable information from within your archive and throw away the rest, you might not need to buy quite that much storage next year, right? Guess which sales rep isn’t going to make it to President’s Club this year? That’s right, yours.

If you are an IT person, get with legal. If you are a legal person, get with IT. Look at this stuff hard and make someone take ownership of the problem. An orphaned project never gets done. Consult with a firm that specializes in policy management and defensible disposition of data.

Attack the problem in three phases. First, clean up your backlog. Find the immortal emails and run a stake through them if they no longer have value to your business. Then, get to a steady state where you can execute new or updated policies. Finally, put in place a plan to enforce those polices, keeping only what you know you need and making available within two or three mouse clicks.

It’s time to dig out of the blizzard and finally make a move to melt away the mess. Emails, unlike diamonds, should not be forever.

Image courtesy of jps (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read a different take on the costs of an email deluge, see Daanish Kahn's To Email or to Collaborate: Unlocking Value of Social Collaboration