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Texas school district hooks up affordable compliance archive

A Texas school district connected its email system to archiving software and DVD jukeboxes, avoiding a cost and management hassle.

As a taxpayer-funded public institution with a limited budget, especially for technology, the rising importance of email systems to daily operations at Tyler Independent School District (TISD) in northeast Texas has often put the district in uncharted technological territory. Most recently, the district of over 18,000 students found itself having to get creative when it comes to keeping email storage in compliance with federal laws.

Email from faculty at the district's two high schools, six middle schools, 17 elementary schools and several alternative education sites is considered public record under the Public Information Act (PIA), the law guaranteeing citizens access to public records kept by government agencies.

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"We have to be able to provide, upon request, any documents, including email, relating to a particular topic or person, whether it's related to a lawsuit or a media request -- anything that's not protected by privacy statutes, within 10 to 14 days of the request," said John Orbaugh, TISD's director of technology.

Most of the school's records are still kept on paper, under a filing system refined over several decades. Where electronic storage exists for the district's computer applications, it's DAS in servers and the odd NAS box.

The school system has refined and practiced policies in place for the storage and retrieval of paper materials for PIA purposes, but unlike filing systems managed by trained secretaries, each employee's email box is maintained by the individual employee themselves.

"We don't have the time or the resources to read email and determine what it is and how long it needs to be stored. For example, an email about a dress code -- is that policy? Is it discipline?" Orbaugh said. "Trying to train 2,500 users to look at their email and decide what needs to be stored and what doesn't would be a disaster."

That designation problem led the district to C2C Systems Inc., and its software, Archive One compliance. The software extracts a copy of every email sent through the TISD system, ensuring that all emails will be stored and indexed within the application. A permission-based management system enables authorized administrators to search the mail archive in response to requests for message retrieval. While the lifespan is initially set for permanent retention, the setting can be easily changed so that TISD can delete email data when allowed by law.

Orbaugh said C2C was listed on Microsoft's Web site as an email archiving partner for Exchange. Symantec Corp.'s Veritas Enterprise Vault also caught his eye from that list, which also includes most of the major storage providers. Orbaugh said he went with C2C after Symantec's product proved more expensive, and he said he was also swayed by a recommendation from a neighboring school district for C2C's local reseller and support service provider.

"A good reference for the local partner was a big plus for us, too," Orbaugh said.

After deciding to go with C2C, the district still needed a back end for the system, and it would have to be disk-based backup; tape would take too long to restore, Orbaugh decided. The media also needed to be a WORM (write once, read-many) fixed archive but without the price tag associated with a high-end content-addressable storage system.

C2C recommended PowerFile Inc.'s Permanent Storage Appliance, a jukebox with a terabyte (TB) cache on the front-end appliance and virtualized DVD-based media libraries in the storage subsystem. A newly created archive file can be stored in both the cache server and on the DVD within the library.

"We can show that our email records are in a tamperproof storage system, and that we can easily search and retrieve them," Orbaugh said. Orbaugh also said he was impressed with PowerFile's cheap price tag and scalability -- for a 1.7 TB unit of WORM storage, he estimates the district spent between $15,000 and $20,000. The device can be scaled up to 17 TB, which Orbaugh estimates would take him decades. The district will probably only have to add a new box every two years "at the earliest" he said. In fact, the licensing fee for the C2C software cost the district more than the archive repository at $25,000. All told, the system is a fraction of the cost of a brand-name enterprise system like Centera. PowerFile was implemented within two weeks from the initial meeting with C2C.

"I didn't have to spend a big wad of cash with one system -- I can just scale up as my needs grow," he said. "It put the district in a nice position from a legal standpoint."

While it's easy and cheap, however, Orbaugh did admit there are tradeoffs. The system does not include deduplication and compression features that are becoming popular in message and compliance archiving. In fact, Orbaugh said the district archives all email, regardless of its business value.

"We still don't have the resources to classify every email," he said.

Another big feature that's missing, Orbaugh said, was that the software does not include a redaction tool for retrieved messages.

Currently, Orbaugh said he has to either print out email once it's retrieved and use a black magic marker for the redaction or send files over to Adobe Acrobat and use its black highlighter tool.

"Sometimes a PIA request includes information that is protected for privacy reasons, like names of minors," he said. "That information needs to be crossed out before the document is delivered. Right now, Archive One does not have that capability."

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