Louisiana district solves email storage problem

Located in southwest Louisiana, Calcasieu Parish Public Schools is at the forefront of leveraging technology to enhance productivity – both for the district and the more than 38,000 students it serves. As the sixth largest district in the state with 62 schools, Calcasieu has demonstrated a history of technology leadership through the delivery of online instructional services, rolling out ubiquitous wireless Internet connectivity, and the availability of intra-district email accounts for every student.

“People tend to write off email as just being a side process of the daily activities,” comments Chris Mace, network specialist for Calcasieu Parish Public Schools. “But in education, as in a lot of public entities, it has become the alternative means to the telephone.” And while enhanced communications and improved productivity are just a few of the many benefits email affords, it too has posed a unique set of storage and data management challenges for Calcasieu’s small but fierce IT department.

Federal and State Mandates Drive Email Archiving Requirements
As of December 2006, the Federal Regulations on Civil Procedures (FRCP) requires that businesses, government agencies and school districts archive all inbound and outbound email communications for a period of five years, ensuring the accessibility of potential evidence in the event of a lawsuit. All K-12 school districts are required to comply with these federal email archiving mandates, as well as with state local records and retention laws.

Although considered a technology pioneer, Calcasieu operates its computing infrastructure with relatively few resources. A staff of five technologists is responsible for managing the district’s massive network, which consists of over 1,100 switches and a couple hundred servers. In addition, Calcasieu maintains a fairly complex email system with six dedicated mail servers and an active directory containing more than 28,000 objects. Outside mail servers receive roughly one million messages per day, blocking about 80 percent of those as spam. On average, the network processes 60,000 inbound messages daily, all of which must be retained in a secure, reliable and compliant environment.

Prior to April 2009, Calcasieu relied upon journaling to archive email for the more than 23,000 mailboxes throughout the district. This process, by which copies of actual messages are stored within the Microsoft Exchange environment, was neither robust nor time efficient. According to Mace, it could take upwards of two days to load messages from the journaling mailbox in the event that archived data had to be searched and retrieved. Journaling consumed both valuable mail system storage and network administrator’s time, with the potential to hinder Exchange performance as storage capacity needs scale.

While there are a number of solutions designed to simplify email archiving, the investment is not always feasible for school districts reliant on public funding. “Our budgets are never what we’d like them to be, so it was critical that we evaluated products that were very budget-friendly,” recalls Mace. “In addition, we demanded speed, ease of use and superior ongoing support.” After much research, Chris Mace and his team selected the ArcMail Defender U3160 appliance to capture, index, store and quickly recover up to 16 terabytes worth of email message and attachments.

Calcasieu currently has more than 27 million messages archived with ArcMail Defender, and the capacity to store email for six to seven years without an upgrade. And while the forensic demands for message retrieval have been few and far between, Mace operates with confidence that such requests can be satisfied in a matter of minutes.

“ArcMail has really created an efficient process for pulling historical data for individual users, mailboxes or even individual messages,” comments Mace. “When querying a specific user across 23,000 mailboxes and more than over 27 million messages, it took just a minute and a half to pull the data we were seeking. Under the old way we were archiving and journaling, that data would have taken us days to retrieve.”

While Calcasieu students are only allowed to send and receive mail within the district, the potential for bullying or other inappropriate behavior certainly exists within those confines. And the ability to search, identify and retrieve questionable messages has become a common email archiving application for school districts across the nation. In addition, administrators can use the technology to confirm or deny that a student received a specific message – be it a homework assignment or threat from a peer. ArcMail Defender not only helps Calcasieu achieve regulatory compliance, but also offers the ability to quickly submit queries for a variety of foreseeable forensic requests.

“As a small team with big technology goals, everything we do has to be done more efficiently. I call it the ‘work smarter, not harder theory’,” reflects Mace. “We are real particular about how we interact with technology. It must not only meet our core requirements, but also save us time and money.”

While there are two dominant approaches to email archiving – appliance- and cloud-based solutions - Calcasieu intentionally avoided the cloud functionality. “We couldn’t get comfortable with the concept of pushing things out to the cloud,” recalls Mace. “Essentially, we would be giving up availability of the solution itself and if something were to break, we couldn’t take a look at it.”

Another advantage to the ArcMail Defender is that the cost of the appliance came in at less than 10 percent of Calcasieu’s total next lowest bid. “And for an appliance that I physically get to look at every day, that I have had zero troubles with, and that anytime I have had to call in for some sort of support – with a query or whatever – I get the answers I need quickly. All of this equates to my having more time to work on other things,” said Mace.