The ubiquity of unstructured information has businesses at a crossroads. Unstructured information is the currency of business, from files, email and instant messages to Microsoft SharePoint documents, Web sites and more. It can also be anywhere, from laptops, desktops and PDAs to file servers. What’s more, unstructured information is extremely valuable since it often represents the future – plans, strategies, tactics and ideas.  

The volume of unstructured information is constantly growing and becoming much more difficult to manage effectively. A recent survey of IT organizations conducted by Applied Research-West reported that email and SharePoint content is increasing by more than 30 percent every year.  Part of the reason is that many copies of information are stored – as an email attachment, uploaded to SharePoint and saved to a network server, for example.    Clearly, the business-critical status and pervasive nature of unstructured information call for its protection and management. At the same time, the volume and distributed nature of unstructured information make securing it difficult. As the quantity of unstructured information increases, organizations are purchasing more storage and servers to accommodate it, while also incurring the associated power and energy costs. In addition, with more unstructured information to sift through, finding specific information for legal, regulatory, human resources, information security and other business purposes becomes far more time-consuming.As companies arrive at this information crossroads, they have two choices: they can choose to disregard securing and managing unstructured information and simply accept the accompanying costs and risks, or they can decide to actively take steps now to secure and manage unstructured information and, in turn, mitigate risk and reduce expenses. Examining the challenges and opportunities of each path provides organizations with the ability to make an informed decision that is appropriate for their business.

Accepting the Risks

Companies that choose not to manage and secure unstructured information will almost certainly face significant financial and security risks. For example, as unstructured information, grows and organizations continue to purchase more storage to house it, their costs will escalate simply because the rate of information growth is much greater than the rate of decline in cost of storage.As a result, organizations will ultimately spend more to store their unstructured information and their storage budgets will start to consume more of their resources. With capital expenditures and operational expenses being streamlined in businesses around the world, few organizations can afford to keep paying for more and more hardware and its associated power, cooling and space costs. Worse, this approach starves other IT initiatives of resources, making it harder for IT to respond to the rapidly changing needs of the business.Organizations that do not address these unstructured information challenges also jeopardize information security. With today’s cybercriminals now financially motivated, highly sophisticated and well-organized, external threats are a compelling concern. The recent Conflickr/Downadup worm, which is estimated to have infected more than 12 million computers, is an example of this.Data loss can also occur from within the enterprise as users inadvertently or intentionally expose confidential information. Regardless of the cause, information leakage can be catastrophic to a business, with consequences such as loss of brand and reputation, diminished customer confidence, and fines and penalties. For many organizations, the risks associated with ignoring their growing unstructured information challenges may make choosing this path ultimately unsustainable. As a result, many organizations must, eventually, take an alternate path that enables them to manage their information risk over the short and the long term.

Managing the Risks

Organizations that take steps now toward information risk management will significantly reduce the cost and risk of unstructured information. In today’s shrinking economy and lower IT budgets, cost reduction is an obvious priority. Furthermore, reducing risk will enable organizations to cut their exposure and survive more effectively in an economically precarious and competitive environment.The first step toward mitigating information risk is to manage data more efficiently in order to reduce the amount of storage required. Using single instancing technology ensures that just one copy of a file or message is stored, regardless of the number of times it occurs or the application storing it (think about a document shared with 100 people in an email message, that is then saved 50 times to a file server and also uploaded 10 times to different SharePoint sites). Organizations can also use single instance storage together with compression to further reduce the information footprint. By reducing the amount of information stored, these technologies help keep costs under control.Following an information retention schedule can also result in cost savings by automatically migrating information to cheaper storage as it becomes less relevant and ultimately deleting information that has reached the end of its useful life. Studies by the U.S. National Archive indicate that less than 10 percent of all information requires long-term storage.Related to this, civil and criminal law and regulations require organizations to ensure that relevant records are not accidentally lost or deleted, and also that the information can be found and held for use in a court case.  Responding completely and quickly to an e-discovery request as part of actual or even anticipated litigation requires an ability to place legal hold on potentially relevant content, and to do it cost-effectively means avoiding the creation of further “legal hold” copies. Companies have been fined substantial amounts for failure to retain and produce information requested by the courts. To that end, a number of archiving tools are available that eliminate duplicate copies, implement retention policies, enforce legal hold, and allow fast search and review. Finally, with external threats kept at bay, organizations must guard against internal data loss, wherever the information may be. To address this, data loss prevention tools can discover, monitor and protect sensitive information everywhere in an organization, from storage repositories to email to laptops. The most effective tools provide a information policy that can be applied broadly, including network file transfers, backup tapes, printing and faxing, as well as cutting, copying and pasting. As unstructured information volume grows and data becomes more distributed, the challenges of managing this information are an increasingly pressing concern. Organizations must be able to protect unstructured information from internal and external threats regardless of where the data is, while also reducing not only the cost of managing this data but also the risk of not finding the right information at the right time.Organizations that choose to take steps toward improving the way they manage their unstructured information will be able to address pressing security, storage and search challenges. By choosing to actively manage their information risk, these businesses will advance along the path that ensures competitive advantage not just today, but also over the long term.

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