(IDG) -- You'll have to excuse the network managers at Roche Bioscience for taking a rather bah-humbug view of Rudolph and The Snowman.
It was a week before Christmas last year when a blizzard of snowman.avi and rudolph.exe attachment files buckled the e-mail hub that services the pharmaceutical giant's 57,000 employees worldwide.
Anxious to avoid a repeat of that three-day dig-out this year, Roche recently replaced the hub's Digital VAX workstation with an Alpha 800, and the company intends to read a cease-and-desist riot act to workers on the problems that multimedia holiday e-cards can cause.
Roche by no means will be alone. E-mail administrators say the increasing popularity and disk-sapping size of these electronic holiday missives, combined with the everyday volume of nonbusiness junk, can create an e-mail network nightmare in some shops.
Experts also warn that these e-cards, as well as seasonal screen savers, jokes and the like, pose a serious virus risk as they pass from desktop to desktop.
Aside from written policies disallowing these e-mail exchanges, limiting attachment sizes, and filtering for the most popular files, are the countermeasures of choice, managers say.
Brian Holle, e-mail administrator at Roche, says his company's bout with the holiday deluge last year "was disastrous, brutal. . . . We still talk about it."
"At that point, we had three different mail systems, so there was a lot of routing through this corporate hub and [the holiday-related files] just drove the thing into the ground," Holle says. "It backed up all the queues, pretty much filled the hard drive, mail was taking hours to get through."
An urgent plea asking employees to stop sending the files did manage to stem the flow, but not before Holle and his colleagues had been put through a fire drill.
"For about three days we were manually going into the queues and deleting these messages," he says. "I was manually moving mail through cc:Mail up to the hub for about two days while we were trying to get over this."
Richard Bliss also finds nothing joyful about these electronic greetings. He's an executive at AllegroNet, an Ohio e-mail outsourcing company that felt the wrath of Rudolph and The Snowman last year.
"We had to react immediately because in December we were beginning to lose customers who were seeing a slowdown in service," Bliss says. "I'm estimating that we lost 25% of our customer base over the next five months because they got hit with much higher phone connection charges."
Customers saw their connection times more than double and were understandably angered by bills that skyrocketed from several hundred dollars to as much as $2,000 per month. AllegroNet managed to assuage some customers by switching them to a dedicated connection, but others defected to ISPs.
"We purchased substantial equipment to meet the increase in [network] traffic," Bliss says. "At the time, we were still adding new customers at a high rate, and the load crippled us."
This season, AllegroNet is not only better equipped to handle the holiday rush but is also offering a free filtering service to any business willing to have its Internet e-mail routed through the outsourcer's system.
Bugaboo files such as snowman.avi and rudolph.exe will be targeted and removed.
Why are these otherwise amusing files so bothersome? In a phrase: They spread like crab grass.
"While visiting one of our clients, I saw at least 15 copies of snowman.avi [2M bytes] enter the company from the Internet every hour, 24 hours a day, for more than a week," says Joel Snyder, a senior partner with Opus One, a consulting firm in Tucson, Ariz. "Once they get in, people pass them around."
This proliferation is "very bothersome and worries me a lot," says George Taylor, a network analyst at Black Hills Heath Care Network in Spearfish, S.D. "I've actually seen machines that have a 3-to-1 ratio of these animations to applications on the desktop," Taylor laments. "How productive do you think that machine is?"
Worse yet are the implications for the network, he adds.
"We end up with a 2-meg file being replicated over our entire WAN, then of course everyone has to save it, so where does it go? Home directory, of course," Taylor says. "Say 100 people save it on each of our nine servers. Multiply that by four or five of these during the holidays and four or five more throughout the year, and we're talking enough space to drive my Olds through."
The chances of a virus getting through are also increased, he adds.
"We do have standard protection on every desktop," Taylor says. "But shoot, we're seeing viruses all the time that our software doesn't catch."
These electronic greeting cards and multimedia files are becoming more bothersome, in part, because ever more Web sites are offering visitors the opportunity to distribute them willy-nilly. While the holiday versions get center stage this time of year, Web classics like the dancing baby and the PC-bashing badday.avi contribute heavily to the problem, experts say.
You may want to look at the bright side, however. While administrators may have a hard time appreciating this silver lining, the proliferation of the holiday e-cards does say something positive about e-mail, according to Snyder.
"E-mail is so good and so strong and so popular," he says, "that people don't even think about the impact of this kind of thing."
Paul McNamara is a Senior Editor at Network World Fusion.
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