Several years ago, the Windows IT Pro editorial department received a discovery request from a law firm for our records of email communications with a particular company. The editorial department fretted over how to identify what those email messages were, never mind recover them all, in the limited amount of time provided. Fortunately, the law firm dropped the request a few days later—but the experience left everyone here wondering how to handle such a situation if it happened again.

Email-archiving products are geared toward making situations like this one easier to deal with. Such products are designed to let messaging administrators or even end users easily retrieve specific email items, such as messages, appointments, or attachments—based on any number of criteria. This buyer’s guide looks at software solutions for Microsoft Exchange Server email archiving. There are many email-archiving products worth investigating, so let’s take a look at some things you need to know to make the best choice for your organization. And don’t forget to peruse the buyer’s guide table to see how your favorite email-archiving vendors stack up against one another.

A Backup Isn’t an Archive
Most companies back up their entire network infrastructure regularly, including the Exchange server and all its databases. Such backups are intended primarily for disaster-recovery situations and typically rely on tape for storage. Recovering individual items from such backups is time-consuming if not downright prohibitive.

The benefit of an email archive is that you can recover anything from one accidentally deleted message to an entire mail database—a flexibility that simply isn’t part of a traditional backup. Although an email archive can be used as part of a disaster-recovery scenario, its primary uses are to provide better performance for your mail servers and—the really big one—to comply with legal requirements or requests.

Saving Your Server
The importance of email for business communication places a serious load on your infrastructure—particularly your email server. Many end users treat their email client as a sort of all-purpose filing cabinet. Unless the company imposes a quota on email storage, users are likely to keep stuffing email messages into different folders until the server is choking on them.

You can think of an email-archiving solution as a Heimlich maneuver for your mail server, ready to expel the cause of the choking. Many archiving software products will remove the original message from your Exchange server, freeing up important space. Some solutions will even leave a stub in the user’s mailbox with the introductory parts of the message and a link to the full text in the archive; if you want to read the entire message, the product retrieves it at your request.

You should also consider how the product handles email attachments. Attachments should be part of the email archive, but do you need the software to index them so that they can be searched? If security is a factor for you, you might want the archive to be encrypted. And if you’re budget-conscious, you might want a solution that provides compression and single-instance storage.

Email archiving can also be part of a business continuity plan. Beyond the obvious disaster-recovery scenario, consider what you’d do if a key employee were to leave your organization suddenly. With an email archive, you could pull that employee’s correspondence to ensure that important data isn’t lost in the transition.

Complying with Security Regulations
The driving force for most organizations implementing an email-archiving solution is the need to comply with particular regulations or to be prepared for a legal investigation. A big feature to consider is whether the product can create litigation holds, which are rules of retention for specific items that override the normal retention of the archive. And, if you find yourself in a particularly litigious field, you might need the product to be able to establish multiple overlapping holds on data as well. In addition to retention, you need to be able to find specific items to answer discovery requests, so pay attention to what type of search capability each solution offers.

Also, some security regulations dictate how data is archived. For instance, the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act requires you to maintain data integrity for the entire retention period, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Rule 17a-4 requires you to store data on unalterable media, such as WORM storage media, which lets you write data to a disc only once, but read the data many times.

These general guidelines and the buyer’s guide table should get your search for an email-archiving software solution off to a great start. (Editor’s Note: Some vendors that you might expect to see in this Buyer’s Guide table said they didn’t have a product that exactly matched the criteria or didn’t respond to our requests for information about their products.) If you’re already using one of these products, or you have another email-archiving product you’d like to recommend, visit our Exchange & Outlook forums at forums.windowsitpro.com to tell your fellow admins what works and what doesn’t.