Unfair Exchange is daylight robbery

Need more email storage? That's ten pence for the hard disk and a few thousand pounds to Microsoft

I have never been a fan of Outlook and Exchange, as those poor souls who sit next to me at work can attest. It won't thread properly, it has the searching abilities of a blind tortoise with a blocked nose, and using that interface is like wearing boxing gloves in a library. But of late, it has excelled itself. My mailbox is over its size limit. My patience is way beyond that.

I'm getting these errors about twice a week at the moment, and the frequency is increasing. When Exchange gets really upset with me, it refuses to send even a one-line email until I hack away at the old stuff. Once the far end of my mail file was three years away, now it's at five months and closing rapidly. More random email, fatter attachments and the steady growth of must-have mailing lists account for this relativistic time contraction. I've already cursed the lack of old emails — they're a valuable archive — and I do not have the time to patiently triage every incoming message. I want my email system to store my emails until I want them. That's it.

But the last time I got the message — an hour ago, as it happens — I looked more closely. It said primly that I was a bad boy for exceeding my 140MB limit. My what? I've got email footers bigger than that. Obviously some antiquarian restriction left over from the days when spam was a Viking song. So I asked — very nicely — for our IT bods to ease the shackles a bit. In these days of 160GB disks for fifty quid, a hundred and forty megabytes costs fourpence and one farthing. That's ten cents, more or less, for our American readers. Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Sorry, said IT. No can do. Not wishing to burden their budget, I offered to pay ten times that amount out of my own pocket. Ah, if only. The trouble wasn't that our corporate disks were full, it was that Exchange maxes out at 16GB. You can't just go slapping in a bigger hard disk, you know. If you want to double your per-seat cost, then the Enterprise edition of Exchange could be yours — did I fancy funding a couple of hundred quid instead and extracting the same from across the company?

At first, I didn't believe them. This is 2005, where Gmail — it threads! It searches! It works! — gives away 2GB to individuals just for the price of a URL. Is Microsoft seriously contending that their multi-thousand pound email system can manage a mere eight times that amount of data?

Yes indeed. Moreover that 16GB limit has been in place unchanged since 1999, for six years of exponential growth in storage capacity and communications bandwidth. Presumably, Microsoft has been watching with glee as company after company runs out of room and comes looking for a sensible upgrade path, only to be hit with the next step: 16TB capacity at a terabyte cost.

Just to encourage panic, fear and lack of sanity, when Exchange runs out of disk room it doesn't just ease off — it seizes solid. Won't run. You can't get in and fix the problem. You have to dig out a registry hack that temporarily increases the allowable size to 17GB — oho, so it's not a pointer width hard coded limit then — which allows the server to start up so you can desperately prune. Meanwhile, the howls of anguish sound loud in your ears.

You may have been working in a place where email stops working. A more efficient way to extract cash out of desperate people is hard to imagine. But with your email gone, what do you do? Raise the cheque as fast as your trembling hands can fill out the purchase order, that's what.

To add insult to injury, Microsoft is always keen to sell the benefits of big data. You'll be able to store your entire life on your computer, it says — well, yes, as long as you don't use Exchange. Born yesterday? Have we got a product for you! And don't get me started on the 'advantages of 64-bit Windows' and Server 2003 addressing 32GB of memory — so your mail store can fit into memory twice over. Your software still won't run.

It is in situations like this, where Microsoft has its users most at its mercy, that the company's rhetoric comes into sharpest contrast with reality. Changing a corporate email system is enormously painful and disruptive, so the pain Microsoft can inflict without risking its revenue stream is concomitantly larger.

You might think that the ever increasing bang-per-buck of IT hardware means organic, managed growth is easy to achieve. Not if Redmond has its grip on your company's nervous system, it's not. Clearly, the message that we expect sane and reasonable licensing conditions has not got through. It must be time to delete some old ideas.

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