Email has transformed business, but it can be a nightmare.
A broken server can halt production. Emails can't be thrown away, because they may be needed to prove a sale or defend a decision. Storage costs mount, and the email server technology is subject to constant probing and attack. Several New Zealand businesses have addressed the problem in novel ways.
Entrepreneur Rod Drury scored big with his Aftermail product, which he sold last year to US company Quest Software and now lives on as Quest Archive Manager.
"With email comes information overload," Drury says. "So much corporate data is locked in email systems, a lot of technical information, work practice information, knowledge."
There are additional problems. It is not secure. It contains mission critical data and is a mission critical application, but email protocols are not written to the same kind of standards as other mission critical applications in the stack.
Drury says Aftermail tried to address many of these problems by applying what he calls "New Zealand new thinking."
"We approached in a different way, not thinking about it as a storage problem, but remodelling the data," he says.
It put a structure round the messages by putting them in a relational database.
Email has some highly structured data - the meta-information about where the message has come from and the intended recipient - but the content is all unstructured.
"There is too much data coming in for active management. It's way too boring to try to categorise messages as they come in, everyone's too busy, and you don't know what may be important. So you put it all in.
"Our approach was like a flight data recorder. Once it's in an open structure, you can link it to search taxonomies."
Drury sold Aftermail when it had 130 customers in nine countries.
"We needed a partner with an international sales force to make the most of the opportunity," he says.
The deal allows Quest to compete with utilities heavyweight Symantec, which through its acquisition of Veritas has the Enterprise Vault product.
Drury says most organisations still don't archive their email, so there is a huge potential market.
"The storage capacity needed for email is growing at something like 50 per cent a year in some organisations, and because of compliance you have to keep everything," he says. "Nothing sells more discs than an email system."
While other email archive architectures break things down to the message level, Aftermail developed technology to break the message up further, so it can ensure there is only one true single instance of a message right down to the attachment.
Messages can replicate several hundred times in an organsiation's email systems, let alone the amount of space in tape backups.
"After we've applied Aftermail to some Exchange stores, we have seen a reduction in the space used by as much as 90 per cent," he says.
The servers can be tempermental, especially when they are reaching their limits, and they have to be protected from spam, viruses and denial of service attacks.
Auckland start-up SMX was set up to take the hassle out of email for firms.
Managing director Jesse Ball says it brings together multiple best-of-breed anti-virus and anti-spam engines and wraps them up in its own technology and processes to scrub mail before it reaches an organisation.
"People point their mail traffic to SMX data centres. We analyse it, and only pass on the clean messages," Ball says.
He claims 99.7 per cent success in keeping out spam and malware with a one in a million false positive rate.
Customers include Sealord, the Automobile Association, several crown research institutes and the TAB.
Because customers only accept email from SMX's IP address range, they are insulated from denial of service attacks and the standard exploit attacks most email servers are subject to.
"By using a service like ours, customers get access to technologies they could not otherwise get," he says.
Because mail is queued for up to eight days, SMX can be part of an organsiation's disaster recovery strategy.
"We had one customer whose server room was broken into and the mail servers destroyed, and when we brought the queued mail up, they had not lost a single message," Ball says. "Most people get to the point where they are sick of having to manage these things day-to-day because the problem moves day-to-day. There are better things their IT staff could be doing for the business than firefighting the email server."