If you use your email for business, then I am sure that you have run across the problem of what to do with all of that mail. In a previous career, I received literally hundreds of emails each week, many with attachments as PDFs, DOCs, and XLS files. Many were informational or required some action on my part. I would add my own data or analysis and then pass it along to the appropriate department. After a while, these email chains start to add up.
Over the years, Outlook users have been confronted with this problem because Outlook was only designed to send and receive email. It was never designed to be a file storage solution. Nevertheless, users have always tried to use it for just that. Earlier versions failed miserably and Outlook 2000 would simply self-destruct if the data file grew to the 2 gig size. No one ever expected people to save that much data. In an effort to correct this problem in 2003, Microsoft improved Outlook to allow for PST files larger than 2 gigs. PST files are one way that Outlook stores your data on your computer. They also included a number of utilities for managing and repairing these PST files. Every email, attachment, contact, and calendar entry is stored inside a single PST file in Windows and after a time, can become somewhat overwhelmed.
Between 2003 and 2007 it was fairly common for Outlook’s PST files to become corrupt, often losing valuable data in the process. Many improvements were made with the 2007 version, and by 2010, most of the PST corruption issues had become a thing of the past. Thankfully, this has corrected most of the problems with lost data from Outlook crashes but it still leaves us with a problem. How do we manage a large number of emails, especially if they have attachments?
Up until recently, the only way to backup email was to export the messages into a PST file and store it somewhere on your computer, or better yet, on a different computer. This method of backup works well even today. Most of us feel comfortable knowing that we have a physical copy of our important emails stored in a safe place. The problem with this approach is that you actually have to do it. Like any backup, the most important part is backing up regularly. Hosted Cloud Exchange with Office 365 is a good way to minimize your risk. Since your email is stored on multiple servers managed by a trusted company, you are less likely to lose any email. If you combine both hosted Exchange with a local backup solution, you can get the best of both worlds. Your email now has 2 levels of protection.
Backing up your emails provides a way to restore them if there is a problem, but it does not address the file size problem. Just because Outlook can handle larger amounts of data doesn’t mean that every computer can perform well as that file size increases. Furthermore, larger means larger than in the past. It does not mean HUGE. Think of it this way. Every email in Outlook has a size and then you have to add the size of each attachment. You next have to add a search index. As the size of the database grows, the more resources it takes to manipulate it. That means it uses more memory, takes up more hard drive space, and uses more of your CPU. As a user, you see Outlook start to lag or stutter. Searches take longer. Often this starts to impact other programs as well. Your whole system may become unresponsive or lag. Now it is time to think about lightening the load.
In the past, we really only had one choice. We would simply copy the data into a PST file and store it locally. With any version of Outlook after 2007, you can easily open a PST file. This simply looks like a different account. The folders show up to the left at the bottom of the tree. Once you have it opened, you can search it just like your normal emails.
One backup strategy I have used is to archive my messages into years. I would then have a PST file for 2010, 2011, 2012, etc. By moving this data out of my main Outlook database, I can keep its data file smaller and faster. This improves the performance in Outlook and, consequently, improves my computer’s performance as a whole. This can be especially noticeable on a less powerful machine like a laptop.
The downside of this approach is usability. If I am looking for an email from 2010 or 2011 that I remember sending to Greg, I have to first locate the PSTs from both 2010 and 2011. Then, I have to copy them to my current machine – because Outlook cannot open a PST across a network. Once I have them on my machine, I can then search them to locate the message. Once located, I can then close and delete the temporary copies of the PST files. On the whole, this is not a bad backup scenario and, in fact, we still think that this is the best method for maintaining a backup copy of emails. On the other hand, it is not simple.
Microsoft has added a feature to Office 365, however, that makes archiving easier. It’s called On-line Archives and it keeps your archives available to you online. You now have the ability to set up a retention policy at the user level. This simply defines a maximum age for items to appear in your mailbox and what happens to them after that time. These policies can be set up so that no action is needed on the part of the user. For instance, an administrator could set it up where all email is automatically moved into an online archive when it becomes 366 days old (over 1 year). Once enabled, all email would move into the archive folder as it crossed the 1 year threshold.
When we move messages into the archive, they come out of the main mailbox and go into a 2nd one. This means that Outlook is only managing the messages in the main mailbox during most operations. This reduces the size of the Outlook mailbox and increases performance. In addition, since it happens automatically, you don’t have to remember to move the messages.
My first thought on hearing about this was about running out of space. Most Exchange accounts have 25 Gigs of storage included. This storage includes both the main mail box and the archive folder. For very heavy users, Microsoft will upgrade you to unlimited archival storage per account for a small monthly fee, although most users will never need to pay for added storage. I did a quick look over the data used by our clients and found that 10G was the maximum that anyone was currently using. Even the heaviest of users has a way to go before running out of space!
It’s easy to access messages in the Archive Mailbox. The Archive Mailbox shows up below the primary mailbox when you look at the Exchange Web App. Any user can log into the cloud online and see their archives, or if you have the right version of Outlook 2013, this archive will also show in the same location in the Outlook desktop app. You can search the archive just like any folder. Be careful if you want to use this functionality in Outlook 2013. Microsoft has limited the versions of Outlook that support this functionality to their enterprise versions. These are readily available both as stand-alone products and even as Office 365 subscriptions but you have to read the fine print to make sure that you purchase the correct version. For some reason they have chosen NOT to include this with Home and Business or MS Office PRO versions.
So what if I want to get messages out of the archive? Well, messages can be moved into or out of the archive by either right clicking them, then choosing MOVE, or by simply dragging them back to where you want them. They will, however, be returned to the archive the next time Exchange runs its maintenance since they will still be over 1 year old. If you need a message to stay in the main mailbox, then just forward it to yourself and send it as an email. That keeps the original in the archive and gets you a copy into your current mail.
If you like to sort your email into folders, you will be happy to know that the In-Place Archive
replicates your existing folder structure.
So, will moving messages into an online archive eliminate the need for backups? Now this is a question that would be sure to get some heated discussion from a group of geeks. For most people, most of the time, the answer would probably be yes. Having said that, in my opinion, the purpose of backups is to plan for a disaster. While the cloud is probably more secure that most machines, we can’t count on it never failing us. Furthermore, what happens if there is a subscription problem? I spent several weeks earlier this year proving to Social Security that my mother was not dead. Mistakes happen. I think that using an online archive is a safe and convenient way to archive email. Having said that, it doesn’t take that long to build some PST files by year, as well. I think that the best answer is to do both. Most people will never use the local backup copies but I would feel better knowing that they are there. Since there is a good copy online, this would mean that I could be a little sloppy about getting around to doing it, but I still want that “belt and suspenders” security. After all, there are few things that I would miss as much as losing my Outlook information!