Businesses these days are completely and utterly dependent on their email systems for communicating not only in-house but with customers and suppliers, as well. In this environment, molasses-paced email, or servers down for hours or more, can hurt the bottom line. Full-blown disasters, such as extended power outages, fires, floods, or other natural disasters, can cripple a small or mid-size business.

But disasters both large and small are all possibilities companies have to prepare for -- and make sure their email systems can weather the storm. “Email is mission-critical,” Stephanie Balaouras, senior analyst at Forrester Research, says simply.

Small- and medium-sized businesses seem to understand the risks. A December 2006 Forrester survey of 2,434 small and mid-sized businesses found upgrading disaster recovery plans to be their second-highest priority.

Hosted email solutions

With limits on staff and resources, many small and mid-sized businesses are turning to hosted email server solutions to solve their email woes. Providers of these products, which include Sprint, AT&T, XO Communications’ Concentric, MessageLabs, and Postini, check incoming email for spam, viruses and other cyberattackers before allowing it to pass through to the company’s on-premise email server.

By using multiple virus scanners, constant monitoring, and customized scanning techniques, providers like MessageLabs can offer much more protection than standard anti-viral software, notes Joe Stewart, senior security expert with SecureWorks, an Atlanta-based information security firm.

These services can also ensure that, if a company’s server is down for any reason, its incoming email is queued off-site and held until the server is back up. This ensures no loss of email, but also prevents embarrassing email “bounce-backs” to the sender. Some providers can also offer companies the ability to switch over to webmail in instances where their email is down for days or more, so that employees can access it from other locations in case of an emergency.

Nate Gilmore, Concentric’s director of hosting product marketing and sales, says that it’s important for companies to think of email security and email disaster recovery in the same breath. “The first stage of email disaster recovery is prevention,” he says. “Addressing security concerns helps keep your server up and running.”

Pricing of these services is relatively affordable. Concentric, for instance, charges $15/month for 80 users of its Perimeter Email Protection service, while AT&T charges $2.75 per user per month for its Secure E-mail Gateway service.

Don’t forget that saved email  

Companies considering use of a hosted server should be clear on what they do not offer.  Most hosted email server solutions do not include email storage as part of their small- to medium-sized business offerings. Smaller companies may need to look for separate plans offered by telecommunications companies, or specialists such as Iron Mountain, for backup or archival services so they can access back email as well as critical data on the company local area network.

Unfortunately, email is perhaps as unreliable now as it’s ever been. But with proper planning, companies can make sure that their email systems can survive through potential disasters -- be those natural, such as stormy weather, or man-made, such as a hacker attack.