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The quest for indestructible e-mail

In his periodic look at high-tech start-ups, CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos talks with a new Texas company that's come up with a way to save and restore e-mail during big outages.

In a pinch, many people might be willing to gnaw off their left arm rather than give up e-mail for a few days. MessageOne is trying to ensure no one ever has to make that choice. The Austin, Texas-based start-up has developed a system for immediately backing up and restoring e-mail and other communication services in case of an outage. Let's say a meteor vaporizes the mail server in your regional office in western Australia. The outside world will never know.

"You can have a flood, you can have a one-day outage, you can have an ISP line that gets cut," said Adam Dell, MessageOne's founder and chairman. "Our entire product line is not just to hide disturbances, but to provide business continuity in general."

Just as important, the service costs 90 percent to 95 percent less than conventional backup systems. IBM Global Services has signed a deal to sell the company's software in its Business Continuity Recovery Services. Other large customers are also tinkering with the software.

The 33-year-old Dell is, yes, from that Dell family. Brother of PC market wunderkind Michael, he's a former attorney at Winstead, Sechrest and Minick, now serves as managing partner at Impact Venture Partners, is on the board of XO Communications and teaches at the graduate business school at Columbia University. (By contrast, Angelo and Michael Kanellos are still trying to figure out what the fuse box does exactly.)

Save the best, can the rest
The operative principle underlying MessageOne's software is that people really don't need everything they save, according to Satin Mirchandani, the company's CEO. Disaster recovery systems essentially work by replicating e-mail and other data on servers and storage systems physically located in a different building or city. If a disaster occurs, the twin network shouldn't be affected.

If all goes as planned, employees can log on to the alternative network rapidly and avoid painful gaps. What kind of pain? Mirchandani mentioned a 2,000-employee law firm that was largely frozen for two days because of e-mail problems; everyone had forgotten how to use the phone. Then there was the manufacturer that lost $1 million in revenue amid an outage when orders went to a rival.

The 33-year-old Dell is, yes, from that Dell family.

"E-mail and messaging are the killer apps for the enterprise," he said.

Unfortunately, most current replication systems back up everything, an expensive undertaking. The storage boxes, servers, networking gear and software required to erect a mirror site can run into the millions, and companies then need to retain employees or consultants to manage it. Leasing space from service providers with emergency network rooms isn't cheap either.

By contrast, MessageOne lets administrators fairly easily set preservation policy: A senior vice president's e-mail accounts may be preserved in its entirety, while a shipping clerk's e-mail might be preserved for only seven days, and even then only messages from certain people may be replicated.

MessageOne

Founded: 1998

Employees: 20-plus

Location: Austin, Texas

Funding: $18 million

Investors: Impact Venture Partners, RRE Ventures

Patents awarded, pending: six pending

Web site: www.messageone.com

Once the policies are set, the system synchronizes data on the two networks (the active system and the backup network) automatically. The software will also characterize the backup profile for new employees and drop others.

Companies still have to lease space at emergency network providers, but far less energy and cost goes into it. Traditional backup services cost around $120 to $200 per month per employee, Mirchandani said. MessageOne service can be had for $10 a month.

"We provide 90 percent of the functionality at 10 percent of the cost," he said. "Do you really need data from three years ago?"

The software also contains some features that enhance security. Data can be preserved in its forensic, or original, state, a key necessity for financial houses and law firms. The backup system also runs on Linux, an outgrowth of a research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thus, if an Exchange virus knocks out the primary network, the same bug can't fell the backup.

What's the catch?
So if it's so cheap and partly dependent on Linux, why don't the established disaster recovery firms just do something like this themselves? Not everything is open source, Mirchandani says. The company has received and applied for patents on its synchronization and storage compression technology.

Additionally, the established server firms stand to make money off of the system. The company, after all, is selling the software to them and not creating competing backup networks. IBM is one of the largest disaster firms out there, and will be using the software. The company has been shipping its software for eight to nine months.

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"SunGard, IBM or HP could do it if they wanted, but now that someone has built the software it becomes a make-or-buy decision," said Michael Osterman at research firm Osterman Research, which tracks disaster recovery, noting that cost and rapid synchronization are the company's key selling point.

Potentially, the software will let these companies expand their services. Right now, MessageOne can be used to back up virtually all major e-mail platforms. Soon, however, it will be deployed to provide backup service for Research In Motion's BlackBerry pagers, Mirchandani said. Backup for voice and for instant messaging, as well as backup for short, less-than-disastrous, outages are also possibilities, he added.

"There is a whole suite of opportunities for us," Dell said in that same eerily calm tone used by big brother Michael. "We are providing an alternate technological approach to the problem."