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Beat load shedding – achieve e-mail continuity

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All e-mail systems will fail at some stage due to software error, hardware failure, a storage problem, human error, a network problem, or a catastrophe such as a flood, fire or theft, writes Louis Botha of Think IT Solutions.

In South Africa recently, companies will attest that frequent power outages and load shedding have had the most disastrous impact on business e-mail systems.
Companies regard e-mail as a vital communication tool and business application. Hence e-mail downtime is a source of aggravation, lost productivity, reputation risk, potential regulatory consequence and lost trade.  In addition, customer service, efficiency, delivery, interaction with clients and stakeholders all become monumentally difficult in the face of e-mail downtime.
Unfortunately conventional approaches to e-mail continuity are technically complex and expensive to operate and maintain. They also do not cater for many downtime scenarios and leave many organisations inadequately protected despite their significant investments.
Meanwhile the cost of ensuring e-mail uptime remains a prohibitive factor, with businesses preferring to wait and see whether the power outages will escalate out of control before investing heavily in additional equipment.
This has, however, lead to a new trend emerging of companies outsourcing their ICT environments to off-site, self-powered service providers.
There are three key strategies, which IT departments need to see as investments to ensure successful e-mail continuity:
* Availability strategy: Availability investments seek to ensure that systems never fail, or that the possibility of them failing is reduced. Typically, this includes the use of redundant and resilient infrastructure. In theory, there is a direct correlation between the amount spent on availability technologies and the levels of uptime subsequently achieved. However, due to the localised nature of availability systems, the persistence of single points of failure elsewhere and the fallibility of many availability technologies at either hardware or software level, companies still need to plan for the potential failure of these systems.
* Recovery strategy: Recovery strategies are designed to ensure that if and when something goes wrong, systems can be recovered and services can be restored within an acceptable timeframe. Typical technologies include tape backup solutions, online backup and offsite data replication with standby mail servers. Recovery strategies have two performance criteria – firstly they seek to avoid any loss of data as a result of a system failure and secondly, they minimise the recovery period. Reducing the recovery period substantially requires significant budget as additional hardware, real-time data replication infrastructure, advanced IT skills and offsite facilities must be made available. Recovery of backed up data is by no means a guarantee that restored systems will be fully functional. Even when the recovery period has been reduced by the application of technical solutions, the business may still suffer extended downtime during load shedding and other crisis situations.
* Continuity strategy: A continuity strategy provides the option of continuous access to services during a system failure via an independent offsite infrastructure. This infrastructure is typically loosely coupled with the primary e-mail system. It can be used to keep users productive and communicating during the lag before a full system recovery plan is invoked, whilst it is underway, or as an alternative to invoking a full failover to a recovery system. It can also be made available to end users during a minor outage or planned downtime or maintenance, making the cost and complexity of switching to a full production recovery site unnecessary. Most companies have not yet identified how to achieve this level of continuity strategy with essential services like e-mail. Without this contingency in place, they feel
compelled to overinvest in both availability and recovery strategies, which in reality, may keep the availability of services such as e-mail at a surprisingly low level.
Many companies do not yet make the distinction between availability, recovery and continuity, but by fully understanding the separate options available in each strategy, companies can avoid overinvesting, be more responsive to their end users’ needs and eliminate their exposure to a broader set of risks. Correctly balancing these strategies enables companies to achieve an optimal level of e-mail service uptime well within their budgets.
It is now possible to achieve e-mail continuity via the Internet, in a way that includes a remote geographically diverse message transfer agent of commonly known as the MTA and sophisticated routing infrastructure, advanced e-mail security and policy control, reporting tools, and long term e-mail storage, all delivered as a utility style service. This can be offered as a part of a fully integrated e-mail management platform and enables IT professionals to provide an instantly available standby e-mail service to their users.
When the primary e-mail system or network fails, the service will automatically queue and provide real-time access to new e-mails that are pending inbound delivery. This access can be provided directly to end users who can read, reply, forward their own e-mail and create new messages via an easy to use web mail facility. Users' access to this facility can be authenticated against existing network log-in credentials.
End users are able to access e-mails in the inbound queue as if they were in an inbox. Should queue re-routing be required to an alternate mail server for recovery, this can be configured via an administration console in real-time. Alternatively, once the primary e-mail system is recovered, e-mails will seamlessly move to each end users primary inbox, including all e-mails they have sent during the outage.