The Boston e-mail scandal shook city hall during this pivotal election season. Here at Blast, we’re pretty tech-minded. So we went to some e-mail experts for some technical analysis on this story.
We talked to Barracuda Networks, a California-based company best known for its spam and virus firewalls. The company also offers storage, backup and e-mail archiving solutions.
The controversy originated from a Boston Globe request to review e-mails from advisers to Mayor Thomas M. Menino. But city hall could only account for 18 e-mails sent or received in a six month period from Michael J. Kineavy, Menino’s Cabinet chief of policy and planning and one of his closest advisers. City hall acknowledged that Kineavy deletes his e-mails on a daily basis, which circumvents the city’s nightly backup process. The city has said Kineavy’s actions exploited a glitch in the backup process because he both deleted his messages from his inbox and cleared his deleted items folder.
Government officials’ e-mails are a matter of public record.
Kineavy has since taken an unpaid leave of absence. But could this all have been prevented?
After talking with Barracuda and doing some of our own research, it is clear that City Hall addressed the issue of preserving its e-mail messages incorrectly. Boston’s backup process is a poor solution for archiving e-mails, and it runs contrary to accepted best practices.
“Relying on users to save e-mails (i.e. ‘do the right thing’) and not delete e-mails is prone to failure as people can mistakes,” said Barracuda spokeswoman Kylie Heintz.
Having faith in traditional backup systems is not the right answer. Even without the “glitch” that allowed e-mails to be permanently deleted, the City of Boston’s approach to ensuring all e-mails are saved by backing up the e-mail system was not ideal.
There is a functional difference between “archiving” and “backing up.”
Archiving is like storing e-mails in a filing cabinet in your office or an alphabetized library card catalog. Backup is like locking them all in a safe deposit box in the bank, behind a time-lock and a password that only the bank manager knows.
Backup systems typically compress all the files and messages into a single file — similar to “zipping” your photos so they take up less room on your hard drive. This creates another problem, because it’s more difficult to search inside these compressed files.
Even if Kineavy hadn’t deleted his e-mails, it still may have been difficult for the city to find, isolate and release his messages.
A backup process is routine, predictable and easy for an end-user to avoid. These processes rely on the end-user’s system. Products like the Barracuda Message Archiver and many of its competitors completely take the end-user out of the equation. An archiver is ideal in these situations, because these products save messages at the server level. Whenever an e-mail is sent or received by the server, the archiver takes it, copies it, saves it and makes a search-able index so that messages can be found later on.
Since public officials’ e-mails need to be saved, it is expected that they will need to be searched through at some point in time — like if a journalist requests copies of them. Backup systems are not designed with archiving in mind. The only way to access e-mails from backup systems is to restore the backup file and then manually search through the results. This is very time consuming, error prone and expensive.
Several cities in Massachusetts use hardware archiving solutions, and Heintz confirmed that some used Barracuda’s Message Archiver. None of the cities would go on the record for Blast, however, given the controversy surrounding e-mail
Boston’s backup script was a good solution for a disaster or system failure, but not necessarily the best solution for a public records request. Archiving is a superior method for public records requests.
“Organizations have needs for both” according to Aseem Asthana, Message Archiver Product Manager at Barracuda Networks. Backup is vital to organizations. If something happens to an e-mail server, or a natural disaster wipes the server out, a backup can be used to restore all the data present at the time of the backup. But pulling individual files is more difficult. Often, an information technology professional is required to restore individual files from a backup.
An archiver, as opposed to a backup, allows e-mails to be accessed readily and seamlessly.
Menino’s office did not respond to a request to comment on this story.
We acknowledge that Barracuda is a for-profit company. Its Message Archiver starts at $1,999, but it would cost about 10 times that for a model amped up to serve a major city like Boston.
But it would also have saved a few headaches and maybe prevented Boston’s E-mailgate scandal.
John M. Guilfoil of the Blast staff contributed to this report.
Clarification: We changed the sentence “A backup process is routine, predictable and avoidable.” to “A backup process is routine, predictable and easy for an end-user to avoid.”