HP plots an effective e-mail archiving grid

Blade system creates a solid platform to aid in compliance

Security, scalability, and performance are the most obvious factors to consider when choosing an e-mail archiving system for your company. To be well prepared for responding to litigation or audits from regulatory bodies, you want a well-protected system that can quickly extract relevant messages from the millions or billions you’ve archived.

Operating cost should also figure prominently in your decision. After all, your company has probably already absorbed hefty storage management costs for those messages, and an archiving solution that requires a similar lineup of resources would divert even more precious dollars from your core business.

Does such an ideal e-mail archiving system exist? I tested Hewlett-Packard’s StorageWorks RISS (Reference Information Storage System) 1.1 -- announced last March -- and was impressed with its innovative architecture. Based on storage cells, HP RISS promises seamless archiving, quick message retrieval, and granular scalability.

Along with its forward-looking hardware platform, HP RISS offers apps to automatically capture and archive messages from Microsoft Exchange and to make powerful, easy-to-use queries from a standard e-mail client. The new version increases the storage capacity of each cell to 850GB and adds support for Lotus Domino servers.

Put Your Users on a Grid

Its underlying grid of resilient clusters, called SmartCells, differentiates RISS from the competition. Containing two blade servers that mirror their data for automatic fail-over, each SmartCell is self-sufficient and integrates seamlessly with other cells in the grid. A basic RISS system has a capacity of 1.7TB, which can be expanded in granular increments as your archiving needs grow.

Because each cell searches only 850GB and does so in parallel, the design is resilient and delivers fast retrieval. Moreover, RISS has the advantage of multiple processors, delivered with a number of cells that customers can adjust to suit their specific requirements.

With additional software (not installed in my test bed), admins can take advantage of the RISS cell structure when performing backups by focusing on new messages, skipping previously backed-up data. This clearly saves time and space on target media.

Using dedicated gateways for Exchange and Domino, RISS automatically captures messages without disturbing the e-mail server. However, you will need two gateways if both e-mail systems are in use in your datacenter.

The gateway automatically forwards messages to a front-end application, dubbed HP StorageWorks RIM (Reference Information Manager) for Messaging. RIM automatically stores, indexes, and retrieves e-mail messages across the grid.

That may sound complicated until you consider that, for any e-mail archiving system, all the aforementioned components must work. RISS has the advantage of being an integrated solution that is easy to use and requires minimal caretaking. In fact, understanding how the system works was the most difficult part of my review; actually working with it as an admin or user was plain simple.

For my evaluation, HP made available a working RISS system with gateways to Exchange and Domino servers. (Setup assistance is included with the system.) I began my review by opening Outlook Express on a client machine and logging in as a regular user to Exchange.

The only clue that I was working on a RISS system were additional menu tabs in Outlook and Notes. Everything else, including sending and receiving messages, had the usual look and feel.

Finding the Needle

My test system had messages already archived in RISS, so I could immediately try out the search capabilities via a browser GUI that starts conveniently from the Exchange and Notes client menus. For a basic search, you fill in fields such as which user’s messages to scan, how far back in time, and using which keywords.

The GUI advanced search mode offers more criteria such as a date range or a specific document type or path. Both search modes are easy to use, but in case of confusion, the online help explains each field in great detail.

I tried several queries, using restrictive and lax search criteria, and the results appeared almost immediately on my screen regardless of how many messages were found. From an unrelated account, I sent messages to test users and saw the new messages appear after a short wait in the RISS archive.

The query result lists only a summary -- typically user, subject, and date -- for each message, but clicking on the result will open the full body in a preview pane. One of the messages that my query returned had a PDF attachment that opened immediately in Adobe Acrobat Reader when I clicked it.

In addition to viewing the messages, I could save the results, send them to someone else (typically an attorney, in a litigation scenario), or export them.

E-mail systems offer similar capabilities. However, they are much less efficient, don’t scale as well, and most important, don’t protect messages from involuntary or malicious changes or deletion, which could expose senior management to harsh legal actions.

Consolidating redundant messages and attachments is another advantage of using RISS. Although certainly not the main reason to choose this solution, the amount of space saved can be significant.

Getting acquainted with RISS should be a no-brainer for users, but how difficult is to control such a complex system? I found the answer by logging in to the browser GUI of the PCC (Platform Control Center), the management application for RISS.

Interestingly, PCC is based on Nagios, the popular, multifaceted open source monitoring system for Linux/Unix. If you are familiar with Nagios, you should feel at home with PCC; if not, you’ll probably catch up quickly administering RISS.

Using PCC, admins can set up automated reporting and monitor the status of devices and services. Consistent with its name, PCC allows admins to control the state of all components -- including e-mail servers, gateways, and SmartCells -- and to generate warning messages when there is a malfunction or when certain thresholds are met.

RISS is among the most innovative storage solutions I’ve ever reviewed, and it’s one of the easiest to manage and use. In terms of price per gigabyte, RISS seems more expensive than competing products, but its moderate administrative cost and buy-as-you-grow approach quickly disproves first impressions. If you’re looking for a fast, reliable, easy-to-manage e-mail archiving solution that will facilitate compliance, RISS is probably your best bet.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Performance (15.0%)
Reliability (20.0%)
Scalability (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Manageability (20.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
HP StorageWorks Reference Information Storage System 1.1 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.9