For old IT guys like me the interesting question is why wasn’t most of Ms. Lerner’s emails online? If you have the last three to five years of emails online then a disk crash becomes a minor issue. I get the impression that very few of her emails were online. To an IT guy or gal the difference between online and offline storage is how fast you recover from an event like a disk crash or theft. Online storage also lowers the cost of email discovery. In the vast majority of scenarios online storage is the low cost solution and offline storage is the high cost solution. So why did the IRS choose the high cost solution? The letter from Leonard Oursler, IRS, to Senators Wyden and Hatch provides their explanation but in turn opens the IRS to second guessing. According to the letter “the average individual employee’s mailbox is limited to 500 megabytes, which translates to approximately 6,000 emails”. Prior to 2011 the limit was lower. To support Ms. Lerner’s 67,000 emails from 2009 to 2011 it would have required about 5.3 gigabytes of online storage or approximately .003% of the 170 terabytes the IRS said they had available for online email storage. If management wanted they could have solved this problem by instructing the Exchange administrator to set her quota much higher. The cost for this solution is zero.
To put the email storage requirement into historical perspective here is an announcement from 2007 where Yahoo announced that it was offering unlimited email storage. I believe that Hotmail also offered unlimited email in 2007 but I am little fuzzy on whether Google offered 5 GB or 15 GB for their free email accounts. So if Yahoo, Hotmail, and Google can offer email storage greater than 5 gigabytes for free, what is the problem with the IRS?
First I looked at possible Exchange 2007 restrictions. Harold Wong says in this post that Exchange 2007 supported an unlimited database size. It doesn’t look like the software was the problem.
Then I looked at the cost of disk space. At work we use HP Proliant servers with SCSI drives which I assume the IRS is using, too. In 2009 we purchased a 300 gigabyte drive for about $230. If they were running servers with smaller disk drives then It would be easy to swap out drives and expand the database. In this scenario it would have cost the IRS about $7 to put her 5.3 gigabytes online. At this cost level a compliant email retention policy with 5 to 50 year retention schedule for staff personnel looks like a no brainer. If we go to the other extreme and accept the estimate provided by the IRS that “it would cost well over ten million dollars to upgrade the IRS information technology infrastructure in order to save and store all email ever sent or received by the approximately 90,000 current IRS employees”, you have to recognize that the IRS has already spent more than that on this investigation then they would have by upgrading the email system. The IRS policy to limit the employee’s mailbox to 500 megabytes was not only a costly mistake but it was not even a good faith attempt to comply with the federal email retention requirements. One hard disk drive crash could be explained as bad luck. When you have seven hard disk crashes and you are unable to reliably produce the emails, you have just made an argument for a massive policy failure. Why did they do it?