Priority: Mail

From keeping it up to keeping it safe to just plain keeping it, E-mail now warrants an actual strategy.

As E-mail becomes the lifeblood of Corporate America, what happens when the blood stops flowing? A 2003 study of 850 IT managers by research firm Dynamic Markets for Veritas Software found that one-third of respondents thought a week without E-mail was more stressful and traumatic than either a minor car accident or divorce. In addition, 68 percent said corporate employees would get irate if they lost E-mail access for as little as 30 minutes, and one-fifth said they would potentially lose their job if E-mail downtime lasted 24 hours.

That’s a lot of pressure, and it offers further proof — as if any were needed — that E-mail is the killer app of the Information Age. While the actual mechanics whereby E-mail systems are kept up and running fall, in most cases, to midlevel IT staffers, E-mail poses a number of high-level management concerns that senior executives need to stay on top of. From disaster recovery to privacy to regulatory requirements and beyond, E-mail is no longer an electronic office supply, but a key — and complex — piece of corporate infrastructure.

Down, and Out?

Until recently, the most common way to respond to an E-mail outage, other than to spiff up your rÉsumÉ, was to sign on for a replication service, which constantly syncs your company’s primary E-mail server and an off-site backup server so you can switch from one to the other in the event of database corruption, virus attacks, or a power failure. The cost of such peace of mind can be high — $100,000 and up for midsize organizations and much higher for larger companies.

But new options are emerging. MessageOne, for example, now offers a more-reasonable solution called Emergency Messaging System, or EMS. With this approach, managers supply backup E-mail and text-messaging contact information for all employees, including mobile phones, pagers, BlackBerry devices, and alternative E-mail addresses. If disaster strikes, EMS can be activated either by calling MessageOne’s emergency line or using a Web browser to access a secure page. Upon activation, the system sends alerts to all employees at their alternate addresses and automatically reroutes mail to a secure EMS hosted by SunGard and IBM. Employees are then able to receive and send their corporate E-mail via the Web. Once the core E-mail system is restored, all traffic sent and received during the downtime is assimilated into the primary E-mail system.

When a severe rainstorm hit Austin, Texas, in the spring of 2003, commercial offset and digital printer CC West completely lost its Internet connection. For a company that does 80 percent of its business via E-mail, that was not a good thing — it stood to lose at least $10,000 worth of business for every day E-mail was down. But the company had contracted with MessageOne just six months before, so it was able to reconnect with its largest customers, including Dell Inc., within minutes.

“We immediately called in and activated [the system],” explains James Diorio, vice president of operations at CC West. “It notified our entire sales force, and we were able to send files and receive job orders and even 50-megabyte high-resolution PDF [portable document format] files in no time.”

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