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E-mail sleuthing made easy

In an age when your in-box can end up as Exhibit A, tech for following the corporate e-mail trail gets more sophisticated.

John Petruzzi had a job that, until recently, few people would envy.

As director of enterprise security at Constellation Energy, Petruzzi is the go-to guy whenever regulators request e-mail records from the $12.5 billion Baltimore utility and energy wholesaler. For years, Petruzzi has spent more than his fair share of weekends and long nights at the office, combing through terabytes of data on e-mail servers.

"We're talking about large amounts of data: millions of e-mails over a three-to-six-month period among hundreds of employees," Petruzzi said. "It has been a rather arduous process, obviously. I had teams that worked days on end."

Similar complaints are spurring software entrepreneurs who focus on easing this kind of sleuthing. One of them is Aaref Hilaly, chief executive of Clearwell Systems. Hilaly says the time is ripe for innovation as lawyers, regulators and executives come to view e-mail as a major source of evidence and facts.

News.context

What's new:
Fulfilling requests from regulators, lawyers and courts for e-mail records used to take teams of people days as they examined millions of entries for relevant information. But software entrepreneurs have developed programs designed to make e-mail sleuthing almost as easy as a Google search.

Bottom line:
In addition to e-mail search programs offered by start-ups such as Clearwell Systems, Orchestra and MessageGate, larger firms such as EMC offer their own archiving and search options.

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Clearwell, a 30-person company in Santa Clara, Calif., launched this week with the official introduction of its product, the Clearwell Email Intelligence Platform. The product makes sifting through millions of e-mails to find relevant messages almost as easy as an Internet keyword search on Google, Hilaly said.

"The business climate has changed a lot in the last few years, post-Enron and post-Eliot Spitzer," said Hilaly, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur tapped by Sequoia Capital to run Clearwell. "Courts have become a lot more active. E-mail has come to be viewed as a source of truth. If you want to know what really happened, you look at the e-mail. That's why companies are storing more and more of it, and referring back to it."

Hilaly sold his previous company, a software administration company called CenterRun, to Sun Microsystems for $66 million in 2003. Sequoia Capital, which has a $4 million stake in Clearwell, also invested in that company.

A typical request for e-mail in a legal discovery situation requires 1,300 hours of labor and costs more than $100,000, Clearwell estimated. With its software, Clearwell promises to shave off much of that cost and time. The company has applied for patents on its technology and is hoping it can grab the lead in an emerging market.

Clearwell screen shots

Other start-ups, including Orchestria in New York and MessageGate in Bellevue, Wash., offer e-mail search tools.

Bigger players like Computer Associates International, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Symantec and Zantaz already offer some basic search capabilities in their e-mail archiving programs. For example, EMC touts its ability to search e-mail, instant messages and other business data across multiple systems, including Microsoft Exchange Server and IBM Lotus Domino server. It's also readying a new legal investigator tool, which offers "evidence production" features, for release in a couple of months. However, the extra features can hike the price of its archiving system from $18 per e-mail box to $150.

"Search is a hot topic these days," said Denise Reier, vice president of enterprise archiving at EMC. "Search and discovery are both pretty hot."

Google, which makes a corporate search appliance, and Microsoft, which sells the most popular corporate e-mail system, can't be ignored either. For instance, Google and EMC signed a new agreement last week that will add Google desktop search capabilities to EMC's software for managing corporate data. In August, Microsoft acquired FrontBridge, which made messaging security and archiving tools that Microsoft plans to incorporate into its Exchange Server e-mail program.

Still, Clearwell has some unique advantages, analysts said. What stands out about the company is its ability to tap e-mail in multiple places, including "active data stores," where new messages reside before they're archived. Another differentiating feature of the product is its message ranking system and its dashboard interface.

"What they're doing is quite interesting," said Michael Osterman, head of Osterman Research, which focuses on Internet messaging. "It's the next step beyond archiving."

That said, Osterman thinks Clearwell and others like it may have a difficult time selling their e-mail archive add-ons, because a majority of companies don't do any archiving at all. The ones that do, mainly companies in regulated industries, tend to do only what the law requires. "The challenge is getting the market to appreciate the value of this," he said.

Constellation Energy, one of three or so initial Clearwell customers, is a fan. E-mail search requests that used to take days now take hours, Petruzzi said. Sifting through the e-mail archive, a Hewlett-Packard StorageWorks Reference Information Storage System, was "very manual and labor intensive" before he installed Clearwell last fall, he said. It had required a team of five or so people to grab and parse data.

Now, with the lighter workload, he said he expects to reassign two employees to other, more "strategic" work. That's a benefit for the company, because of intensified federal regulation.

To sort messages by relevance, Clearwell's program weighs the background data and content of each e-mail for several factors, including the name of the sender, names of recipients, how many replies the message generated, who replied, how quickly replies came, how many times it was forwarded, attachments and, of course, keywords. The program can also focus searches on a particular department or office location. Filters remove redundant results.

"No other product really sits there and analyzes properties of e-mails like we do," Hilaly said.

He said it takes only a few days to install and configure the software, which sits behind customers' firewalls. It took Constellation Energy just under 10 days from start to finish. It's designed to work with Microsoft Exchange, and it is also compatible with many of the major e-mail archive programs. The starting price of the program is $50,000, which covers 100 gigabytes of e-mail.

Gartner analyst Carolyn DiCenzo said customers can justify the cost of the product several ways. In addition to quick responses to investigations, executives can use the software to analyze their operations, because e-mail holds many clues to customer, product and employee issues. Yet the pain of legal and regulatory investigations remains a lead selling point.

"The money is in legal discovery," she said. "You only have to win one lawsuit or prevent one and you pay for the technology."