Email is down!
For many small businesses, email is the primary method of communicating with their customers and vendors. When email is down, work grinds to a halt, sales may be lost and your company’s reputation can be damaged.
So how do you minimize the impact of an outage?
It starts with a plan
Many companies have their own email server. The ones we work with use Microsoft Exchange for the most part. One of the first things we ask a new customer who has their own email server is “what’s your plan should the email server fail?” Most often they say “we have backup tapes”.
Well, that’s a start. But backup tapes don’t get your email server up and running right away. Depending on the problem you may need to wait for parts to be delivered and installed before you even get to the tapes. So what do you do in the meantime? You wait. You lose revenue.
We recommend a better plan.
The first part of the plan is to have an interim solution that ensures no emails are lost and allows your employees to continue working. That’s when a cloud solution shines.
There are several companies that offer email continuity via the cloud. Most of them offer it as part of a bundle that include SPAM filtering and email archiving – but those are topics for another article.
Cloud Continuity works like this…
All email destined for your email server is first sent to the cloud provider and is then passed on to your email server. This is setup when you subscribe to the plan. If your email server goes offline the cloud provider queues the mail until your server is back up and running.
During the outage, your employees can access and reply to or forward any email that is being held in the queue via a web portal. It’s not as fully functional as your standard email client, but it does a good enough job to keep you, your employees and your customers happily chugging along.
When your server comes back online the queued emails start flowing to your email server.
The next part of the plan is to have better backups. As far as I am concerned, tapes are dead. I am sure there are a lot of folks who will argue with me about that but in the SMB arena you just can’t win that argument. At least not with me.
So if not tapes, what? Disk, of course. Backups to disk are so much more reliable and fast that the idea of using tapes ever again seems absurd. Clearly reliability is important but why is speed? I mean, you don’t really care how long a backup takes so long as it’s done by the time you get into the office in the morning, right? Well, as long as a backup takes, so does a restore.
Restoring from tape, for anyone who has ever done it, is a long and often tedious operation. Tapes are slow and they have to be changed. And if you have several gigabytes of email to restore, not to mention the operating system and applications on an email server, it could take many, MANY hours to complete. That means more downtime and loss of productivity and revenue.
Disks, however, are very fast and will restore a server in minimal time. And there are no tapes to change.
But that’s not quite enough.
So your email server has crashed. You’ve got a cloud solution that gives you immediate access to incoming emails. That’s great. And you’re backing up to disk so restoring the server will be infinitely easier. Awesome! But you still have to wait for the old server to be replaced or repaired. Or do you?
The last part of this better plan is to take advantage of virtualization. The solution we deploy at our customer sites is a BDR or Backup and Disaster Recovery appliance. This appliance has tons of disk space and the software to take backups of multiple servers. It also has the ability to take those backup images and turn them into virtual servers.
Without getting into the details of virtualization, what this means is that while you’re waiting for your server to be repaired or replaced you can restore the backup to a virtual email server hosted right on the BDR appliance. This “spinning up” of the virtual server can often be done in minutes and once “spun up” your employees will be back to work with little to no difference in email performance. And, if that’s not enough, the virtual email server continues to be backed up just as if it were the real server.
When your “real” server is fixed and ready to go the virtual server is shutdown and, since it has been backed up while running, all it takes is a simple restore and you are back to normal.
And a bonus
As an additional bonus, the BDR appliance copies all your backups to the cloud. In the event of a larger disaster your email server, or any backed up server for that matter, can be “spun up” in the cloud. So if your office gets flooded or there’s a fire your business can still operate as all your servers and applications will be available to you from wherever you have internet access.
Is that the best plan?
Best we’ve come up with so far. We’ve covered the immediate need for continuity so that no emails are lost and employees can remain productive. We’ve addressed restoring full email functionality in short order and we’ve planned for the ultimate restoration of the physical server once repaired or replaced. The only other thing we could think of is to have a spare or redundant server onsite but that’s usually not very cost effective for small businesses.
The last word
One part of the plan I failed to mention was this – make sure your server, email or otherwise, has a warranty. A good one with same day service is best. This will not just cut down the time to repair, but you are far less likely to have a failure with hardware that is no more than 3 or 4 years old.
Do you have a better plan? Let me know in the comments section.