An interesting problem has developed, and there’s no good answer in sight. Email is no longer a reliable business tool. We’re going to keep using it but there will be more occasions when I have no good answer to mail-related complaints.

Spam is the primary reason that things are falling apart. It’s at record high levels and I’ve seen predictions that this is the calm before the storm.

For a while we could deal with that at the Exchange Server – drop messages that are not addressed to valid recipients in the business, turn off non-delivery reports, rely on Outlook’s junk mail filter and supplement it with Exchange’s Intelligent Message Filter after Exchange Service Pack 2.

After a while that’s not enough. Servers are using processor power and bandwidth just to drop thousands of misaddressed messages. Most of my business clients have now been set up with Exchange Defender, a third party service that filters spam and viruses. That will work for a while. Most people will read the daily reports from ED at first, until the spam builds to a volume that makes the daily reports overwhelming.

The third party services frequently don’t filter messages that seem to have been returned as “undeliverable,” leading to the recent waves of “NDR spam,” flooding mailboxes with hundreds of messages per hour for a day or two. I’ve gotten a call about this every day or two for the last month or more, helping people set up an Outlook rule to delete any message with “Undeliverable” in the subject. It undermines our confidence in the mail system a little more – and ensures we will never find out that we’ve accidentally sent a misaddressed message.

Spam is not the only thing undermining our confidence in email. We’re dealing with larger and larger files, and at the same time we’re doing more work outside the office or collaborating with people all over the world. The world’s email systems were not designed for large file attachments! I’m constantly hearing the frustration of people whose messages with 20Mb PDF attachments do not get where they’re going. There is no answer – except to learn to use a different method because email is not a reliable business tool to exchange files.

Another problem is going to affect more small businesses in the next year or two. Outlook folders are exploding in size in a way that was never intended by the designers of Exchange Server. It’s convenient to exchange huge files with co-workers down the hall by email, or to use email to send the PDFs scanned by the cool copier, but the result is that mailboxes are far exceeding the sizes called for by best practices. Outlook’s built-in archiving is confusing and fragile – people just don’t understand the process and have no idea what to do with an unruly collection of .PST files. (Not to mention the backup problem – PST files should not be stored on a company server but desktop computers are generally not backed up, putting those PST archives at risk.)

It’s wildly expensive to set up a second Exchange Server and maintain it; third party archiving and hosting solutions are out there but not exactly easy or affordable for a small business with no onsite IT employees. But mailboxes that are 4 and 6 and 8Gb in size are going to run slowly and are at far greater risk to become corrupted, either on the local computer (requiring a long, slow process to rebuild the local cached copy), or worse yet, on the server, where the process of recovering a mailbox is painful to think about. Yeah, I can set mandatory size limits and automatically disappear mail after a certain time. I can also be fired, which would be one of the likely side effects if I try that.

I’m watching a slow deterioration in our confidence in business email, with no idea what to do about it.

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