New system promises disaster-proof email

A Texas company owned by Adam Dell, brother of Michael Dell of PC market fame, has unveiled a new 'hot standby' technology meant to let businesses route messages through offsite servers when primary systems go down.

Email systems have increasingly proved themselves vulnerable to incapacitation by viruses and destruction by natural or human-made disaster, but MessageOne has unveiled a new "hot standby" technology meant to let businesses route messages through offsite servers when primary systems go down.

Called EMS (Emergency Messaging System), the new system is the latest product from MessageOne, based in Texas, and founded four years ago by Adam Dell, younger brother of hardware maker Michael Dell.

Traditionally focused on helping large organisations manage email services, MessageOne designed EMS after hearing its customers complain about the need for reliable and affordable email backup systems, according to Michael Rosenfelt, head of marketing at MessageOne.

"They told us that they needed a high-availability solution, but that existing systems were too costly or too hard to manage," Rosenfelt says.

Existing systems are costly because typically there must be a backup e-mail server for each primary e-mail server for emergencies, he says. High bandwidth connections are needed to tie redundant sites to the corporate network and companies need personnel to manage the additional hardware, he says.

"Our customers told us they wanted a solution that was functionally equivalent but structurally different from their primary systems," Rosenfelt says.

The EMS backup mail server relies on a specially designed core of Linux and secure open-source technologies and can simultaneously serve as a backup for multiple messaging servers using disparate platforms, according to MessageOne.

To integrate the backup system, mail administrators modify their company's DNS (Domain Name System) schema, adding the IP (Internet Protocol) address of the EMS backup server as a low level mail exchange record that will be used if the other listed mail servers are unavailable.

Hosted at a remote location managed by the customer or by an application service provider, the EMS server relies on a dedicated application written in Microsoft's .NET framework, installed on a Windows 2000 server at the customer's site to synchronise information between the various messaging servers and the EMS server, Rosenfelt says.

Called SynchManager, the application takes a snapshot of the topology of a company's messaging environment and synchronises that with the EMS back-end server. Standby mailboxes are created for all user accounts and administrators can pick and choose which parts of their messaging systems they want to be available in a catastrophe.

By default, email messages are not copied over, but company address and contact lists, as well as calendars and other vital information, are.

Administrators can also synchronise mail messages, though Rosenfelt says that the additional bandwidth and storage costs of doing so make it an unattractive option for companies that are not hosting their own redundant site.

When activated, EMS will automatically route incoming and outbound e-mail messages to the back-end EMS server, according to Rosenfelt.

Email users on the affected system receive notification via Short Message Service (SMS), text pagers, or backup email accounts, using contact information supplied by users via a web-based wizard when the system is initially configured.

Affected users are sent a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) pointing to a Web-based mail interface from which they can access e-mail accounts using a Web browser, Rosenfelt said.

Email messages received on the backup system are automatically resynchronized with the primary mail system, appearing in a user's inbox when and if the primary system comes back online, Rosenfelt says.

Developed within the last year as a complement to MessageOne's existing services, EMS is already being used by a number of MessageOne's customers including DuPont and Siemens. More than 10,000 seats are currently being managed by the system, Rosenfelt says.

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