Of vaults and retention policies

A recent article describing the early history of the technology that subsequently became Symantec Enterprise Vault provoked some other memories of ideas that percolated up during the early days of Exchange that have subsequently found their way into the product, albeit in a form that is different to their eventual implementation.

Early versions of Exchange depended on users to “do the right thing” and keep their mailboxes under control. Like many other noble aspirations, this concept was doomed to failure almost as soon as it appeared because users have much better things to do with their lives than to care very much about the contents of their mailboxes. Severe mailbox quotas proved to be the only effective tool to persuade users to remove the email equivalent of debris and clutter and so stop mailboxes from swelling to uncontrollable sizes.

Of course, in those long-past days we were very concerned about the cost of storage. Most corporate mailboxes began with a quota of 50MB and might be allowed to grow to the almost unimaginable size of 500MB if you were an especially important executive or knew some saucy detail about the Exchange administrator’s personal life. Messages were smaller too as marketing departments had not yet found out how to incorporate rich graphic backgrounds into PowerPoint templates. All in all, it was a simpler time.

Other messaging systems included features to allow administrators to impose policies on mailboxes, the most basic being the ability to remove messages from the inbox after a certain period. Accidents could occur with this software – I have memories of how an ALL-IN-1 system administrator ran a housekeeping script on a server in Turin, Italy only to find to their horror that a small but important bug resulted in the removal of every single item in the Inbox of every mailbox on the server. The administrator had run the script on a Friday night and didn’t notice any problem until polite (and some not so polite) questions started to come in from users on Monday morning. Fortunately a full backup had been run on the server before the script wreaked its havoc and it was possible to restore everything as before. Everyone learned a big lesson in that mailbox cleanup is a complex business.

Exchange’s equivalent of the housekeeping script was a utility called MBclean, released as part of the BackOffice Resource Kit. This was a very simple clean-it-out utility that was subsequently replaced by the Mailbox Manager service in Exchange 5.5 SP3 (read my review from November 1999; yes, I have been writing about Exchange for a very long time…).

In any case, the Compaq engineers who worked on the Enterprise Vault product in Reading, UK proposed to build another product called “Enterprise Vault Mailbox Manager” in conjunction with Microsoft. The idea was that Compaq would build the product, which would offer administrators the ability to construct and deploy more sophisticated policies to control user mailbox content similar in some degree to the retention policies available in Exchange 2010 today. Exchange customers would be able to get the EV Mailbox Manager free with the advantage for Compaq being that customers could then upgrade their software to seamlessly link to the Enterprise Vault so that items would be transferred to the EV archive rather than being permanently deleted from the Exchange Store, which sounds like an early implementation of today’s archive policies.

Despite much brainstorming and enthusiastic noises from both sides of the Atlantic, the EV Mailbox Manager never went anywhere and was eventually negated by Compaq’s decision to get out of enterprise software and lay off the EV engineers.

Technology has a habit of reinventing itself to steadily improve and expand on ideas that have gone before. This is just another example of reinvention. Old ideas don’t go away. They simply wait until their time is right and then they succeed.

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