Attachments: Can't live with them, can't live without them

Email attachments. Just the very word sends shivers up and down the spines of email administrators everywhere. This is because attachments probably cause more infrastructure issues in a company’s email environment than anything else. Now,  that is not to say that attachments are bad or not useful; they serve an important purpose in every company. The problem is, just like most every other good thing (e.g. potato chips, ice cream, etc.), attachments are great in moderation. But when misused, they can become very problematic. Though I am very heavy into Domino email management, I would bet that the issues I am about to describe hold true for every messaging system.

In most email environments, attachments consume 50-70% of all storage, and that usage rate is not declining. Even though the messaging vendors have taken steps to reduce attachment storage (e.g. IBM Domino DAOS), attachments still consume a lot of space. Most users feel the need to send everything via email, and I do mean everything. I’m sure you could search the internet for many humorous stories of what users have sent in an email. The problem is, it can be very destructive in different ways. Part of the issue is that users don’t know the implications of sending an email with a 100 MB attachment to 50 of their fellow co-workers. Depending on the messaging system configuration, that single email could consume up to 5 GB of storage! And of course, there will be those who respond with history and include the attachment. Heaven forbid that a user only has one copy of that 100 MB attachment! Not to be cynical, but I’m guessing that not a single recipient immediately deletes the attachment from the reply, so that the mail server is not encumbered with the additional storage usage. Unfortunately, this is the culture in which we live.

In addition to the storage of the attachments, the network traffic is also affected by these attachments being sent to/from the users in your company. Though we may think the backbone is wide and deep, large messages can take its toll on slowing other emails down. The router has to route the message to the recipients, and each router is serial – just one message at a time.

Part of this initial shift would be to educate users on attachments and their impact on the messaging environment. For example, instead of sending that 100 MB attachment to 50 of your co-workers, place the attachment somewhere (e.g. IBM Connections, Sharepoint, etc.) and simply reference it instead of attaching it. That will not only cut down on the impact from the original email, but also from all replies. However, as easy as that sounds to do, getting the users to do it is very difficult. The IT department must get assistance from management for this to be successful. Otherwise, it will fall on deaf ears.

Now that we’ve talked about the problems that attachments present, let’s discuss how to manage them.

Just like the messages that contain them, users will say they must maintain all of the attachments and keep them within the original messages. However, if you were to collect statistics on how often attachments are opened after the original 30-90 days, I would bet that it is less than five percent. That means 95% of the attachments are never used after the initial 30-90 days. So what can you do with them?

Though I am not a fan of distributed information, the best approach sometimes is to tell the users to save the attachments locally, so the attachments within those messages can be managed. However, like previously stated, everything is good in moderation. The problem with this model is that users will go to extremes and save all attachments locally – and now, you have an eDiscovery nightmare. The last thing you want is to have information stored locally that is difficult to search and is not backed up.

As the product manager for Mail Attender for Lotus Notes, I am frequently asked about the best way to manage attachments. My answer is to delete them after the messages that contain them have reached a specific age (e.g. six months). I encourage companies to manage their attachments, just as they manage their mail: create retention policies for attachments and enforce the policies.

Many users will attach files within meeting invitations. Typically, once the meeting has elapsed, these files are not referenced but still consume storage. However, the same is true for normal messages. My suggestion is to do some research, understand your culture and what risks you have concerning attachments.

Regardless of what policies you create, a must on this is to get buy-in from the executives and to ensure the users have been educated regarding the risk of saving all attachments locally. The key to any culture shift like this is communication; you can’t simply enforce policies without communicating why they exist. Users will connect their own dots if you don’t connect them, so it is on you to explain why you’re managing the attachments and the implications if you don’t. Most users will be compliant, especially if they understand why the policy exists. I’m not saying to have a company meeting and vote, but at the same time, you cannot create policies in a vacuum: you must communicate. As Newton’s third law states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This holds true for company policies as well. Your users will invent ways to serve themselves if they don’t understand why the policy exists and the purpose it serves.

In summary, determine your risks, communicate your policies, educate your users and manage your attachments. To learn more about managing attachments, visit our website or call 1.800.255.5155 to speak to a Sherpa Software representative.


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