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Email Attachments: The Scourge of the Network
July 21, 2008 12:00 PM

By Yorgen Edholm
Yorgen Edholm

I’m not alone in identifying email as the leading “killer” enterprise application over the past decade. According to a May 2008 study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, “email is the most popular Internet activity among adults, with 97 percent to 99 percent of adults online in all countries surveyed exchanging e-mail.” In 2006, VeriSign conservatively estimated that 2.25 billion email messages are sent each day.

Most companies would consider email to be a mission critical application for their business. Even a short-term outage or an unusually slow response time for enterprise email yields a flood of calls to the service desk. Knowledge workers simply can’t function without access to their enterprise email.

As an enterprise collaboration platform, IBM Lotus Notes offers much more functionality than simple email. Combined with IBM Lotus Domino, Notes provides a variety of ways for team members to work together. However, email is the dominant component of the application since workers use their messages and attachments to exchange vital business information.

This brings us to the topic of email attachments. Workers often include large files as attachments to regular email messages. This is a convenient and expedient way to transport information from one person to another or to a group of people. That is, it works well unless the attached files are large in size.

Large files sent as attachments to emails are problematic. Because such files consume a lot of bandwidth during transport and a significant amount of storage space in personal inboxes and on email servers, Domino administrators tend to limit the size of file attachments. Message attachments are commonly limited to a maximum total size of 10 to 20 MB. Though limits are unpopular with end users, they are necessary to keep the email system functioning efficiently for all users. Too many large attachments consume bandwidth and slow down the network for everyone, let alone increase storage requirements and cost.

Most enterprise email applications were never designed to transport large files. Rather, this type of application is most efficient when sending short messages that generate small packets of data on the network backbone. However, today’s file types are rich with content and formatting, including audio and video files. These are big files and the need for larger size files continues to grow daily. For example, just one business presentation can easily reach 10 MB or more in size. When a worker sends his presentation to a dozen colleagues, the action spawns a dozen copies of the large file – one copy for each recipient’s inbox, which, if through the single network, causes slowdowns and eventually, lack of email access.

Even though tools like IBM Lotus Quickr are intended to aid internal document sharing, workers still prefer the ease of use of email attachments for file transfer. Moreover, sending email attachments is often a necessity when working with partners, customers and other people who aren’t connected to your internal network.

A better way to send large files
Email attachments don’t have to be the scourge of the network; there is a better way to send and receive large files. Consider integrating a large file transfer system that doesn’t compromise the network with your Notes/Domino configuration.

A large file transfer system is a single-purpose solution that offloads large files from your email system to a separate transport system. Files and folders of virtually unlimited size can be easily and efficiently sent from one person to another or to a group of people by routing the files to a secure file transfer appliance via a secure link. The intended recipient receives notice through email that files can be downloaded from the appliance, also via a secure link. Thus, large files are not routed at all through the email system, so they don’t consume precious email resources including bandwidth and storage space. Large file attachments also won’t impact the size of a user’s inbox, and messages won’t be rejected due to file size limitations.

Deploying a large file transfer system makes sense for every enterprise that uses email. Most notably, such a solution helps to make the email system more efficient. By removing the burden of transporting and storing very large files – files that are duplicated as they are distributed to numerous recipients – you free up resources that otherwise would be choked by these files. At the same time, employees can continue to work the way they want to work, exchanging files through email with each other and with business associates outside the company without bumping up against frustrating file size limitations. In addition, each sender gets an email notification when the file is downloaded by the recipient, for verification and added peace of mind that the file was sent to the intended recipient.

The large file transfer market
Gartner and other business research analyst firms have identified a broad category of file transfer solutions that transport large files within a network and on the Internet. This broad category can be further divided into two types of workflow and business process solutions: managed file transfer and ad hoc file transfer.

Managed file transfer solutions are best deployed as part of a scripted business process, where information flows automatically from person to person or machine to machine in a prescribed way. An example of this would be the approval process of a purchase order, where there is a policy of a standard hierarchy and distribution for reviews and approvals. The flow of information rarely varies because it is a very well defined business process.

In contrast, ad hoc file transfer is on-demand, applying to a less structured underlying business process. Attaching a file to an email and sending it to a colleague is considered an ad hoc type of file transfer because it can be initiated by anyone as needed. With this in mind, ad hoc large file transfer that works in conjunction with managed file transfer is the ideal solution to give relief to an overburdened enterprise email system and IT administration.

My own company, Accellion Inc., provides managed and ad hoc large file transfer systems, in a hardware appliance and a VMware-certified virtual appliance form factor. There are other companies that offer solutions in this same space. For the purpose of this article, I’d like to tell you the generic benefits of deploying a large file transfer system to complement your email system, and then I’ll spend a few moments describing how the Accellion solution integrates directly with Lotus Notes/Domino to create a seamless enterprise file transfer solution.

The benefits of using a large file transfer system
For companies that use email, FTP or other methods to send and receive business files, a large file transfer system solves many problems and offers many benefits. When I talk to customers, I frequently hear concerns like these:

“Our email system can’t handle the large files our employees need to send around. The files are so big that we have to block them to keep our email system from crashing and to avoid an expensive storage upgrade.”

“We’ve blocked large files from our corporate email system, so now employees are using public email accounts to send sensitive business files. We don’t want people using Gmail or Hotmail for business purposes.”

“Our business is highly regulated by HIPAA (or SOX, or another compliance regulation). We need to document the movement of our files, and who is accessing them. We need better tracking methods and accountability.”

“Our employees refuse to use FTP to send files because it’s so complicated. An IT administrator has to get involved for every file transfer. We need an easier way for employees to control their own files.”

If you see your company in those scenarios, you aren’t alone. Many businesses struggle with the same issues stemming from the fact that enterprise email systems aren’t designed to handle large file attachments.

A large file transfer system will deliver the following benefits to your enterprise:
  • Eliminate the burden on email systems – Large files are transported outside the email system, so the overload on bandwidth is relieved and storage costs are reduced. Only one copy of the file is ever stored, even if it is sent to numerous users.
  • Ensure security – Files that are sent via the large file transfer system are usually encrypted upon upload and download so they are protected during transport. The connection between the user’s computer and the file transfer system is secure, (usually SSL). The life cycle of files on the file transfer system is managed automatically, so that files can be deleted after a specific period of time, as determined by your IT administrator.
  • Increase compliance –File tracking capability provides a clear record of who is accessing your files to help you meet compliance requirements for HIPAA, SOX and other regulations. You can easily print reports that show who sent and received each file transfer, and when.
  • Enable adoption through superior ease of use–web based user interfaces that are similar to email interfaces as well as integration with email applications, including Lotus Notes/Domino, add greatly to making it easy to send and receive large files, allowing users to work the way they prefer to work. End users need little to no training or support to use these tools.
  • Solve the email attachment size limit problem-- files of virtually any size and type can be transferred through an efficient large file system. Even very large rich media files, such as broadcast quality video productions, can be accommodated.
  • Deliver enhanced collaboration--Bringing customers and partners into the ecosystem. Effective large file transfer systems have a means to allow authorized outside guests to easily submit files to your internal users. Even if guests’ own email system blocks them from sending large file attachments, they can still send files to your employees.
Accellion--seamless integration with Lotus Notes/Domino
One of the unique features of the Accellion Large File Transfer System is that the product can integrate seamlessly with your Lotus Notes/Domino configuration so that users can send large files without ever leaving the Notes environment. This feature can be deployed through an easily installed plug-in at the administrator’s level, who can then create a global install for all internal users, or do so on an individual basis. A Domino administrator initially makes a change to the email template, and individual users do a one-time download of an installer from the Accellion appliance to their own PCs. Also, LDAP integration is available, which further simplifies the process of logging in to an account. From that point on users can easily and quickly send a file via the file transfer appliance simply by selecting the “attach” button within Notes.

The easier you can make file transfer for your end users the more likely they are to embrace the solution. Workers often reject FTP because it’s too complicated and they need help from an IT professional to set up an account and to troubleshoot its many instances of failure. With the capability to use the reliable Accellion Large File Transfer System from within Notes, users don’t need to consciously think about using the file transfer system as it happens in the background.

A few use cases
Let me share with you a few examples of how companies use their Accellion Large File Transfer System.

The Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, Inc., (HJF), is a private, not-for-profit organization that conducts quality medical research and education programs primarily to improve battlefield medical outcomes. The foundation employs about 1,600 medical, scientific and other personnel, and has relationships with more than 160 military medical organizations around the globe. It takes a worldwide collaborative effort among all these organizations to carry out the extensive medical research that helps to saves lives in times of military conflict.

Researchers and government agencies routinely must exchange large electronic files including rich media presentations and data sets. Moving this information around the world securely and expeditiously is a real challenge. Due to the sensitive nature of the medical data it is subject to privacy protection under laws such as HIPAA in the United States. Transferring the files from one researcher to another must be done through a secure channel to ensure integrity as well as the privacy of the information.

HJF selected the Accellion Secure File Transfer system to improve work processes and data security in a number of ways. Files of virtually any size can be sent and received from internal or external colleagues in real time, no matter where the sender or recipient is located around the world. Since the files are encrypted prior to being transported over a secure channel, there is confidence that it will be secure. As for confirming that what is received is precisely what was sent, the Accellion system provides a “checksum” feature to verify the integrity of the file contents. What’s more, the Accellion system provides a receipt to the file sender so it is clear exactly who has accessed the file and when. This is an important audit feature that further supports HIPAA compliance.

HJF integrated the Accellion solution with its Lotus Notes email system and Novell eDirectory enterprise directory service. Michael Wilson, HJF’s director of IT Infrastructure, told us that the Accellion product integrated 100 percent perfectly with his Novell eDirectory and his Notes application, concluding that, “This proved to us that Accellion has a broad enough development team to cover integration with a variety of products.”

Another customer that implemented an Accellion Large File Transfer System is Red Dot Building Systems, an industry leader in the design, fabrication and erection of metal building systems. The company works closely with its clients and partners throughout the life of a project, frequently sharing documents like architectural drawings, specifications, blue prints, photographs and scanned images, and more.

Even though Red Dot has removed all file size restrictions from its internal email system, the outside recipients had difficulty receiving and sending back the large files, especially blue prints and drawings. That is, until Red Dot began using an Accellion Large File Transfer System. Because the user interface of the file transfer system is similar to an email interface, there is no training or support required to help others use this system, and there’s no need to install any software on the recipients’ PC’s. Guests are simply given a URL where they can access Red Dot’s file transfer system to send files to Red Dot employees as needed.

This system has immensely improved the collaboration among Red Dot engineers, contractors and customers. And because file transfer is almost instantaneous, construction timelines can be shortened and the processes made more efficient as there’s no need to wait for couriers such as Fed/Ex to deliver documents. The delivery cost savings are also significant.

The Henry M. Jackson Foundation and Red Dot Building Systems are just two examples where business processes have been vastly improved by using a large file transfer system instead of email attachments, FTP, Fed/Ex or other document delivery methods.

Yorgen Edholm
Yorgen Edholm is a Silicon Valley veteran with 25 years of Enterprise Software expertise. Mr. Edholm co-founded Brio Technology and during 12 years as CEO, took the company public and grew it to $150 million in revenues with over 700 employees and a customer base of over 5,000 organizations. In addition Mr. Edholm was President and CEO of DecisionPoint Applications, an Analytical Applications company. Mr. Edholm has served on several public and private company boards including most recently Hyperion (sold to Oracle), I-many, Resilience, Verix and Saama.

Mr. Edholm earned an MBA from the Stockholm School of Economics and a Masters in Engineering Physics from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Trained as a concert violinist, Mr. Edholm studied with Ivan Galamian, and has performed in Carnegie Hall (2005).

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