As the winter holidays approach, school network administrators may cringe at the thought of thousands of eMail messages flooding their mail servers with no one around to read or delete them. As unread eMail piles up like holiday catalogs on the coffee table, disk space on mail servers—which is often at a premium—begins to disappear and can crash servers.

Rapidly growing eMail databases can result in particularly dire consequences, because a full disk drive can render most network operating systems unbootable. I’ve had to restore an entire server from its backup log because eMail filled the system volume and I couldn’t boot the server. Network administrators should examine their mail systems to make sure they can properly handle the potential for unchecked growth resulting from unread eMail.

Because the size of your eMail database can change quickly, a well-designed eMail system should be located on a volume other than the main boot volume for the server. This means not on the “sys” volume on a NetWare server and not on the C: drive of an NT server. Once removed from the system volume of your server, your eMail database might fill up and crash its own volume, but at least a crashed eMail system can’t bring down the rest of the server.

Remember, too, to back up your eMail system regularly. Since your eMail database is open all the time, it can’t be backed up the same way as standard files. You will have to shut down your mail system before each backup or make sure that you have the proper backup agents that correspond with your mail system.

Of course, the better solution is to prevent the need for restoring your system from its backup log by keeping the size of your eMail database under control. You can do many things to accomplish this, but the dynamic and critical nature of eMail means that none of these solutions is perfect.

It wasn’t long after we installed our eMail system that I realized I was going to have to manage our mail users’ disk space aggressively. I was able to create a routine in our GroupWise system that ran every night and deleted any messages older than 60 days. I also had the option to reduce mailboxes based on a size limit rather than a time limit, but I thought an expiration date for messages would be much easier to explain to my users, as well as easier for them to live with. After all, they don’t generally know the size of messages, but they do know the age of them. They have been trained and instructed to archive messages they want to keep beyond the 60-day limit.

Besides automatic deletion of old messages, you can control users’ mailbox size during vacation by taking more active control of their simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP) gateway. Most mail systems enable you to set up access control rules for the gateway, which allow or prevent the transfer of mail to and from the internet based on the sender or the recipient. Generally, we use this feature to block spammers and people who have sent inappropriate mail messages from the outside. A quick change of the default access rule will block all messages by default rather than letting them through. You can then set up exceptions to this rule for teachers and administrators who will be using the system during vacation.

Granted, any solution that interrupts service and prevents use of the system for legitimate purposes is less than perfect. Obviously, students who may wish to access their eMail remotely will be disappointed with this solution. I’d also imagine this would be a problem for seniors who might need to correspond with colleges they are applying to. For a small school whose disk space is at a premium, however, this solution might be a good option—provided the access rule exceptions aren’t too complex.

A less-draconian approach to disk space management would be to leave the deletion of messages up to the user. Most eMail systems have the reporting tools necessary to list the names of users whose mailboxes have exceeded a predetermined limit. Microsoft Exchange, for example, can generate messages to alert users who are over their space limits automatically. Of course, when the user is not at school to receive these messages, they just end up contributing to the problem.

There are also third-party products, such as those from eMail Xtras (see link), that give you more detailed and user-friendly reporting capabilities, so you can contact users personally and ask them to reduce the size of their mailboxes. While this is the safest approach in terms of not losing any important messages, it can be ineffective when users choose not to comply or are out of the office or school on vacation.

Users who are planning to be away from their computers for extended periods of time will need to be a little creative with their mailbox management to avoid coming back to a mailbox with hundreds of messages. Encourage users to adopt any or all of the following mailbox management techniques to better control overflowing eMail boxes during vacation:

• Unsubscribe from or suspend your subscriptions to mailing lists.

• Set up an automated action to forward all mail to your home account and delete it from your school account.

• Set up an automated action to organize mail into folders so that unimportant mail can be deleted quickly upon your return.

• Set up an automatic reply that will alert the people who send you mail that you are away from your computer and inform them of when you will return.

• Set up remote access to mailboxes and encourage users to check mail during the break.

While these techniques can be accomplished using most popular mail clients, not all will be appropriate for your schools. Different sizes, management structures, server space requirements, and school cultures will make some of these techniques more feasible than others. In other cases, more aggressive administrative control will be required to keep unread eMail from choking school networks during vacation.

While no single solution is perfect for all schools, you should be able to maintain some level of administrative control over your eMail system by educating users. This will keep your eMail system from looking like your home mailbox two weeks before New Year’s.

eMail Xtras