The government’s Cloud First policy mandates the need to prioritise cloud-based options in all purchasing decisions—and email providers are no exception to this rule. The rationale is clear: to deliver “better value for money”. Cloud-based email can help with this—offering huge operational benefits, especially considering the sheer number of users and the broad geographical footprint of the public sector. It can also be much simpler and cheaper to secure and manage than on-prem email servers.
However, while email services based in the cloud can offer a number of advantages, such services also pose some unique challenges. IT managers in the public sector must track their email applications carefully—much as they do other applications—to help ensure cloud-based email platforms remain reliable, accessible, and responsive. In addition, it’s important to monitor continuously for threats and vulnerabilities.
Unfortunately, even the major cloud-based email providers have had performance problems. Microsoft Office 365, a preferred supplier with whom the government has secured a preferential pricing deal, has been subject to service outages in Europe and in the United States, as recently as this month. Office 365 is not alone; last year, Google suffered a massive and systemic issue across multiple platforms that impacted all of its applications, including Gmail.
Government employees rely on instantaneous communication to make decisions that can impact the course of the country, making email mission-critical as a technology that government organisations cannot live without. As a result, while it’s difficult to measure the financial cost of all that email downtime, the fact is that any amount of downtime or lost productivity is too much for public sector entities.
Fortunately, many agencies are already actively monitoring cloud environments. Sixty-eight percent of the NHS and 76% of central government organisations in a recent FOI request from SolarWinds have migrated some applications to the cloud, and will use monitoring tools to oversee this. Although monitoring in the cloud can be daunting, organisations can apply many of the best practices used on-prem to the cloud—and often even use the same tools—as part of a cloud email strategy that can help ensure a high level of performance and reliability.
Gain visibility into email performance
Many of the same hiccups that affect the performance of other applications can be equally disruptive to email services. Issues including network latency and bandwidth constraints, for example, can directly influence the speed at which email is sent and delivered. These issues can take root and be hard to identify without the proper tools and processes in place.
The government’s Digital Marketplace, which is the central hub of helping public sector entities find cloud technology providers, lists 774 different options in the “email and secure email cloud software” section. This shows that there is a huge variety of software that administrators need to monitor across.
Clear visibility into key performance metrics on the operations of cloud-based email platforms is a must for administrators. They need to be able to proactively monitor email usage throughout the organisation, including the number of users on the systems, users who are running over their respective email quotas, as well as archived and inactive mailboxes, and more.
When working across both a cloud-based email platform and an on-prem server, in an ideal world, administrators should set up an environment that allows them to get a complete picture across both. For example, administrators whose agencies use Office 365 in conjunction with Microsoft Exchange should be able to monitor both simultaneously, allowing them to more easily identify and fix issues as they arise. Currently, however, many U.K. public sector entities are using four or more monitoring tools—as is the case for 48% of the NHS and 53% of central government, according to recent SolarWinds FOI research. This highlights a potential disconnect between different existing monitoring tools, meaning that related systems are not being monitored simultaneously.
Monitor mail paths
When email performance falters, it can be difficult to tell whether the fault lies in the application or the network. This challenge is often exacerbated when the application resides in the cloud, which can limit an administrator’s view of issues that might be impacting the application.
By using application path monitoring, administrators can gain visibility into the performance of email applications, especially those that reside in a hosted environment. By monitoring the “hops,” or transfers between computers, that requests take to and from email servers, administrators can build a better picture of current service quality and identify any factors that may be inhibiting email performance. In a job where time is scarce, this visibility can help administrators troubleshoot problems without the additional hassle of determining if the application or network is the source of the problem.
Nobody, least of all public sector IT administrators, can control when a third-party email host server goes down. However, having the option to manage and optimise the platform on a daily basis can be useful for monitoring the current state of play. By applying existing standard network monitoring solutions and strategies to email platforms, administrators can gain better insight into the performance of cloud email servers. This will help keep communications online and running smoothly.
About the Author
Paul Parker is chief technologist – Federal and National Government, SolarWinds.