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Can you trust your email archive? Five things every cloud email user needs to know

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/kpatyhka)

For most organisations, adopting cloud-based email makes a tremendous amount of sense. Solutions like G Suite and Office 365 promise – and generally deliver – far greater scale, flexibility and performance than on-premise systems, but without the hassle of maintenance and management. However, when you look under the covers, cloud-based email offerings are not as all-encompassing as people assume. They do some things very well, while others come with surprising compromises.

Case in point: email archival. Some solutions ship with built-in archival capabilities. Unfortunately, however, this functionality is limited and doesn’t hold up to the real needs of most modern enterprises, especially when it comes to their legal compliance requirements. If you’re running a small business with a few employees who don’t use email for mission-critical work, basic archival from your email provider may be enough. But mid-sized businesses and larger – especially in regulated industries like energy, healthcare, and financial services – need to take a closer look.

The five limitations listed below illustrate where cloud-based email solutions fall short and what you can do if your business is serious about email archival.

  • Disaster recovery. Most leading email providers store their email archive in the same physical location as their primary email services, which when it comes to disaster recovery, is a disaster waiting to happen. If downtime strikes, all email becomes totally inaccessible for the duration of the event. This can be seriously problematic both for day-to-day operations and for any pending litigation needs. The alternative is an insurance policy: a separate archival system that is completely disconnected from your main service to ensure that when things go wrong, your archived email is still accessible.
  • Search and discovery. Digital archives enjoy a huge advantage over their traditional paper counterparts: the ability to easily search through thousands or even millions of documents and records. But that capability is only as good as the system’s search function, and some providers simply aren’t that great at search. For instance, with Office 365, your results are limited to just 250 (opens in new tab), which is inadequate for most eDiscovery requests, particularly in litigations. If this is important to your business, it’s crucial to find an email archival solution that provides more granular search functionality and broader reach. That way, your legal team can avoid spending days tediously combing through emails one-by-one to fulfil eDiscovery requests.
  • Ease of export. If you’re considering Office 365, keep in mind that the only export format it supports is PST. This is an issue for a number of reasons. If you want to honour eDiscovery requests, make your archived email available for third-party analysis or review (during litigation, for instance), or migrate your archive into another system like G Suite, the export process becomes much more burdensome and time-consuming. Solutions built for email archival take a more agnostic approach, with the ability to export in multiple formats like EML to be more versatile and transportable.
  • Immutability. When your organisation requires immutable copies of archived email, cloud email platforms are not enough. Most cloud vendors cannot guarantee that emails have not been deleted or modified. The issues here are obvious. If you were in a class-action suit and were required to produce all correspondence, you couldn’t be sure that the emails you need were preserved in their original state. Purpose-built email archival systems, on the other hand, can validate that email has not been modified so you can ensure its immutability.
  • Legal hold. Legal hold is one of the primary use cases for email archival systems and a capability that is becoming more and more critical to organisations today. If a company receives a subpoena or is involved in litigation, it must ensure that no data is removed or altered. But some popular email-based solutions have significant gaps in their approach to legal hold.

Office 365, for example, only allows you to put 15 per cent of an individual mailbox on legal hold at any given time. That means that a full 85 per cent of a user’s email remains open and available. Further, its legal hold does not capture group membership or BCC emails; emails sent or received as part of a distribution group or as a blind copy cannot be held. Finally, by relying solely on your primary email provider for archival, you can’t guarantee access to your data. If your cloud vendor suffers a service outage, or even a functionality issue like an export problem, you may not be able to provide the necessary documentation within your required timeframe.

These are considerable issues for businesses and industries that must be vigilant about employee access and/or frequently use their email archive for compliance or legal circumstances. A clunky export format is one thing; not being able to secure the emails that you need for sensitive litigation is quite another. If your organisation even occasionally faces legal matters, you should consider an email archival system that addresses legal hold comprehensively.

Do these limitations with email archival mean that you shouldn’t move to cloud-based email? Of course not. But they do require a more thoughtful solution to searching and securing your email archives. Instead of relying on afterthought functionality within your primary email system, it may make sense to evaluate a specialised “bolt-on” product that works in tandem with your core email platform to ensure complete archival coverage.

Rachel Collins, general manager and senior vice president, Aurea Software (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Kpatyhka / Shutterstock

With 20 years of experience in technology, Rachel Collins is general manager and senior vice president of Aurea Energy Solutions (AES) and Aurea Email Marketing (AEM) with responsibility for over 2,000 customers, 300 employees, and $40M in annual revenue. Prior to Aurea, Rachel was a partner with Stryve Advisors, where she led the IT strategy and innovation practice providing expert guidance on everything from traditional IT challenges to mobile enablement strategy, organizational change and design, business process integration and cloud solutions.