At the average business, the day starts like this: Boot up the computer. Open e-mail. Push the “Send/Receive” button and wait for the flood of messages to pour in.

And a flood it is. According to the Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, Calif., technology market researcher, the volume of global e-mail has grown to 210 billion a day and is expected to hit 297 billion by 2010. Radicati predicts that by next year, workers will spend 41 percent of their day handling e-mail.

That’s a lot of messages. Once they’re opened and read, what’s a small business supposed to do with them all?

In more and more cases, the answer is to keep them. E-mail has become so intrinsic to the way work is done at companies of all sizes, it’s where most business records are stored, says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, an electronic communications consultant and author of a book on e-mail policies due out in December. Federal regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley and recent rule changes that make e-mail subject to discovery in the course of a federal lawsuit are also driving companies to archive e-mail, Flynn says. “People incorrectly assume e-mail is only produced as bad evidence,” in a trial, she says. “But it could be evidence you need to save the day.”

However, not all messages are created equal. Companies need to come up with policies about what to save, Flynn and other e-mail experts say. Once they’ve sorted that out, they can decide how and where to set up e-mail archives, either on site or through an e-mail archiving service.

Creating an e-mail policy

According to e-mail experts, a comprehensive e-mail retention policy should include:

  • Which e-mail messages to keep
  • How long they should be stored
  • How they should be purged once they’ve reached their life expectancy
  • How employees should be notified and educated about the policy
  • What types of disciplinary action the company will take if employees break e-mail rules

Breaking e-mail rules is no joke. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the ePolicy Institute and the American Management Association, 28 percent of bosses had fired employees for e-mail violations. “We’re seeing more employers put real teeth in these policies,” Flynn says. When it comes to managing e-mail, small businesses have more at stake because they don’t have the deep pockets that a large corporation has to hire a defense team and do records searches should they be sued. “It’s much more cost and time effective for a small business to do the work upfront,” she says.

Whether it’s an on-site appliance or hosted service, a small business should make sure the e-mail archive solution they choose:

  • Captures inbound and outbound, internal and external messages and attachments
  • Indexes messages so they can be searched and retrieved with minimum time and trouble
  • Insures the authenticity and completeness of e-mail records in such a way that it complies with regulators and courts
  • Preserves messages in a way that’s secure and tamperproof

When deciding whether to bring e-mail archiving in house or go with an outside vendor, companies need to think about how many employees they need to cover, average e-mail volumes, if their company is growing and how much work they want to take on themselves, says Sean Hegarty, messaging senior product manager at Iron Mountain, the information storage company. Once a company’s determined the scope of the needs, they can decide whether they want to take on the task themselves or farm it out to a Web-based -email archiving service, Hegarty says. The former can be capital intensive, while the latter “is more of a gradual predictable cost,” he says. “Five years ago the market was primarily on-site solutions. Now it seems that a lot of adoption is of the outsourcing model.”

By all means, don’t let employees save their own messages on an ad hoc basis on their PCs or printed out and stored in file cabinets, ePolicy Institute’s Flynn says. If that happens and the company gets sued, the first thing a computer forensic team does is “look in employees’ inboxes and hard drives for those underground archives,” she says.

Sidebar: E-mail Archive Vendors

Here’s a list of some e-mail archiving product vendors:

  • ArcMail -- Appliance-based e-mail archiving solution.
  • Autonomy -- Web-based e-mail archiving and e-discovery, e-mail archive services that are specific to lawsuits.
  • EMC EmailXtender Family -- An array of e-mail archiving products, including specialized programs for Microsoft Exchange and IBM Lotus Notes/Domino.
  • Iron Mountain Total Email Management Suite -- The long-time storage business offers a Web-based e-mail archive service for Exchange and Lotus Domino servers and acts as an online backup service; includes extras such as virus scanning and phishing protection. Iron Mountain offers a separate e-mail storage service for SEC-regulated businesses.
  • MessageLabs -- Provides hosted mailbox management, e-discovery, e-mail compliance and supervision archiving along with encryption, anti-spam, anti-virus and other e-mail services.
  • Dell Message One -- Complete Web-based e-mail management service, including archiving.
  • Quest Software Archive Manager -- A Microsoft-centric e-mail archiving appliance.
  • Symantec -- Offers various e-mail archiving solutions, including Microsoft Exchange archive and recovery service for small and mid-sized businesses and Enterprise Vault automatic mailbox management.