Hail to the e-mail thief

Even the White House's CIO can have a bad day - and regional enterprises should take heart, says Eliot Beer.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  May 4, 2008

Late last month a story appeared that was sure to warm the cockles of every IT professional's heart - the White House (yes, that White House) has been backing up its e-mails manually since 2002.

That's right: the office of the President of the United States of America, the most powerful man in the world (in theory), has someone copy over a collection of Exchange files and store them away somewhere safe.

"I refer to it as a ‘message collection system' even though we all understand that it hardly qualifies as a ‘system' by the usual IT definition," said one National Archives official , quoted in a Congressional report.

The report is pretty damning on the complete and total failure of the Bush White House to implement a system for archiving that was reliable, secure and comprehensive, and it seems numerous warnings had been given to White House officials on the subject. The archiving of presidential e-mails is of course a legal requirement, passed in the aftermath of Watergate and its infamous missing minutes of tape.

If one rules out a deliberate attempt to interfere with the e-mail archiving process - which, let's face it, is always a possibility under the Bush administration - it seems that the archiving fiasco was down to a temporary solution being left in place over the long term.

The report (which is well worth a read, and is available here in PDF format) outlines the attempts made by White House IT staff to implement a new e-mail and archiving system, and the responses of the National Archives, which expressed "concern" over the new system.

The long and the short of it is that the new system was never implemented - something that apparently surprised the former White House CIO who was in charge at the time the new project was started, and was under the impression it had been finished as well.

Why is all of this relevant to Middle Eastern IT professionals? Well, strictly speaking it's not - except for two things. One, everyone likes a laugh, especially when it's at George W Bush's expense; and two, this fiasco is a salient reminder that IT disasters can happen to anyone, anywhere - even the most powerful man in the world.

The Middle East is often cited as having a higher-than-normal rate of IT failure - and I simply do not believe this is the case. Yes, it has a high rate of failure - but so does the rest of the world, up to and including the US.

Perhaps part of the reason for this perception is the general assumption that big and/or famous icons of the Western world must automatically have decent IT systems. Certainly until last week, if you'd asked me how the White House deals with e-mail, I would have imagined some advanced archiving system that can pluck an individual mail from a disk in seconds - not someone with a CD burner.

So once the feeling of Schadenfreude has worn off, regional enterprises should hopefully feel better about their own IT challenges, and failures and success. Certainly they should be more confident about their own abilities - something which is increasingly the case.

And hopefully this confidence should lead them to entering the ACN Arab Technology Awards which will, as ever, be rewarding the best this region has to offer in IT projects.

The ACN Arab Technology Awards 2008: White House CIOs need not apply.

Eliot Beer is the editor of Arabian Computer News.

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