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Meeting email archiving regulations in a K-12 school district

When new email archiving regulations went into effect, one K-12 school district addressed them with help from vendor InBoxer and its new channel partner NetTeks.

When new federal email archiving regulations went into effect late last year, they didn't take into account how hard it can be to change IT spending at mid-year in organizations with both rigid spending plans and little awareness of the need for change.

Bob Cornacchioli, director of instructional technology and media services for Shrewsbury Public Schools, a K-12 system in Massachusetts, however, realized the compliance regulations would apply to public schools just as they did to businesses, and that the school district's policy of saving Microsoft Exchange e-mails for just 90 days wasn't going to cut it any more.

Fortunately, Cornacchioli didn't realize that finding a technical solution and the money to spend on it would leave the problem unsolved without the serendipitous intervention of a VAR whose value add was as much in customer relations as technical problem-solving.

Working with the Shrewsbury superintendent and other staff, Cornacchioli set a goal of being able to save emails for "a few years," he said. He first developed a system for manually offloading emails from the Exchange server and archiving them, but the process was inefficient and caused the normally reliable email system to crash.

The manual system also failed to address one of the major provisions of the email archiving regulations: that archived emails be quickly and easily retrievable.

"The time that could potentially be lost retrieving that (information) would be astronomical," said Greg Onorato, the Shrewsbury schools' network manager.

"That's when we said, 'Oh my God, we can't be dealing with this on a manual basis,'" Cornacchioli said.

Managed storage provider compliance solution

The school system IT team first considered a storage solution from Symantec Corp. but decided against it because it was "wicked expensive," Cornacchioli said. Then they tested a product by InBoxer, a Concord, Mass. company that specializes in addressing email archiving regulations, and they liked it a lot better.

The InBoxer product, called the Anti-Risk Appliance, pulls emails from the Exchange server, indexes them and stores them on a network appliance. Users can then search the index through a Web interface.

"For searching, it's very robust," Cornacchioli said.

He decided to integrate the system with the district's VMware platform, which he said would save the cost of buying some large appliances. But before he could do that, his team realized the plan wouldn't fly for reasons that were regulatory, not technical. Massachusetts requires all companies that do business with public agencies, including schools, to be on a list of state-approved contractors. InBoxer wasn't on that list.

Value-added reseller (VAR) Enter NetTeks Technology Consultants, on the other hand, was on the list, and had worked with the Shrewsbury schools since the Boston VAR was formed a decade ago.

NetTeks tried the InBoxer product, and liked it as much as Cornacchiioli did, according to Ethan Simmons, a partner with NetTeks, which formed a partnership with InBoxer to sell the product to the Shrewsbury schools, and continued their partnership even after fixing Shrewsbury's e-mail archiving problem.

Finding the money to pay for the work was another challenge, because "my tech budget, by the middle of February, is pretty much spent," Cornacchioli said.

School officials were able to transfer surplus money in other departments' accounts to pay for some of the work, and Cornacchioli received the rest of the funding in the budget for this fiscal year, which began July 1. He declined to say how much the work cost.

Some school districts are reluctant to comply with the email archiving regulations because it provides no educational value and takes up storage space, and their IT budgets are "already overburdened," Simmons said. "It's an unexpected funding requirement that they don't want to plan for."

Schools rarely have extra tech budgets to spend, and often are slow to respond to tech-focused regulations, according to Amy Larsen DeCarlo, a principal analyst with Current Analysis in Sterling, Va.

"A lot of it has to do with funding," she said. "Some of it has to do with awareness. This isn't their core business."

The channel opportunity

Channel companies working with K-12 school districts should explain the value proposition of addressing the email archiving regulations to their customers, DeCarlo said. Schools can lose accreditation and funding if they are found to be noncompliant with certain federal, state and local regulations, she said.

Other school districts may not even know about the rules, Cornacchioli said. He cited a survey of school technology directors in Massachusetts, in which 50% of respondents said they were unaware. Many of the directors who were aware were only making minimal efforts to address the rules, he said.

One reason may be that directors are reluctant to address the privacy concerns that email archiving raises, even though Cornacchioli said "there's not enough time in my day that I would want to peruse my staff's email." Shrewsbury did not start archiving its emails until all staff members were notified, giving them a heads up to "change their practices," Cornacchioli said.

"We have to comply with the law but not violate the trust of these folks," he said.

NetTeks was able to help the Shrewsbury schools because of their longstanding relationship and NetTeks' experience in the K-12 market, Simmons said. School districts are behind the curve on addressing email archiving regulations, so they do present opportunities for the channel, but it could be tough for companies without K-12 experience to make the transition, DeCarlo said.

"With K-12 it's a lot more complicated, because there are a lot of state and local requirements that play into it," she said.

In Shrewsbury, for example, Cornacchioli also had to make sure he complied with the state public records law. The law says that any correspondence among a quorum of a public board or committee constitutes a public record. Shrewsbury assigned school district email addresses to its School Committee members so it would no longer have to rely on individual members to save their emails in their personal inboxes.

But because many K-12 school districts do not have a lot of internal IT expertise, there can be a greater opportunity for profitable hands-on work for channel companies that can adjust to the education sector, DeCarlo said.

"Some of these solutions are not things you can just pop in," she said.

Shrewsbury's solution is almost complete; Cornacchioli is just waiting for a storage area network (SAN) drive he ordered to be delivered, and he hopes to have the full system up and running by the start of the school year.

"I think I've positioned Shrewsbury in a good spot technologically," he said.

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