Outlook's risky archives - and how to fix them

Outlook's risky archives - and how to fix them

Summary: When you "archive" your Outlook email you probably suppose that your data is now safer than it was. After all, isn't "archiving" all about placing something important in a safe place?


When you "archive" your Outlook email you probably suppose that your data is now safer than it was. After all, isn't "archiving" all about placing something important in a safe place?

Many of us run our business lives on email. So losing a few years worth of email is traumatic.

The sad truth is that archiving your Outlook email makes your data less safe. Here's why and how to fix it.

Archiving is convenient - for other people If your company has an Exchange server, and far too many do, your sysadmin may be after you to reduce the size of your mailbox by deleting or archiving old emails. Exchange doesn't handle large mailboxes well. Many large mailboxes are even worse: recovery can take days.

When you archive email, Outlook deletes the email on the server, which makes your sysadmin happy. But where does it put it? Somewhere safe?

No. It puts your vital email on your hard drive. One crash and POOF! All your old email is gone. Forever. Hard drives crash, usually without warning. I've had two hard drives crash in just the last week.

How to check for at-risk archives It is easy enough to check where your archives are stored. From within Outlook

  • Go to File
  • Select Archive . . .
  • At the bottom of the dialog box it should say "Archive file:" followed by a location. If that location is on your C: drive, your archives are at risk.

Don't bogart that mail, my friend, pass it over to me If your archives are on your local hard drive you should make copies. The easiest ways to copy them are onto a USB flash drive, a second hard drive, a network drive (if you have one) or burn them to a CD or DVD and take them home.

It is possible that your company network backup system is saving your archives. Backups often fail to save data, but check with your sysadmin anyway.

Is Microsoft to blame? I think so. Microsoft, as usual, is tone deaf to the needs of end-users. How hard would be it be to suggest in the archiving process that people should copy their archives?

Compare Microsoft's behavior to Apple's new Time Machine, coming out in the next version of OS X this October. Time Machine explicitly requires that you set it up with a second hard drive.

The first time you attach an external drive to your Mac, Time Machine asks if you'd like to use that drive as your backup. Say yes and Time Machine takes care of everything else. Automatically. In the background. You'll never have to worry about backing up again.

I guess Microsoft was too busy getting WGA to sort of work to worry about fixing problems that actually matter to customers.

The Storage Bits take Microsoft is doubly negligent. First by making Exchange so difficult to use the way people want to use email: saving everything on the server with fast searching. Second by not encouraging people to copy their archives for safety.

Now that you know, you can protect yourself. But wouldn't be nice if your software company was a little more help?

Update: I love the comments this post has generated, so I'm commenting on the comments in this update.

I wrote this post because a friend in a 250-person Silicon Valley tech company lost years of email for this very reason. Checking around, they found that most other people in this tech-savvy company faced the same danger. I looked into it myself and found that protecting email is a real issue for many people and companies. All the earmarks of a worthwhile topic.

To all those who say it is simple to solve this problem I say, "Why is it a problem in the first place?" I agree with the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, who began his very first tech review with the statement “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.” IT is no longer "special." It is part of the daily fabric of our lives and IT companies need to own up to that. End update.

Update II: Several people suggested storing .pst files on a server. One commenter shared a useful link about why you don't want to do that.

Comments welcome, of course. I would have checked this on Outlook Express, but I don't have a copy handy. Is it any different?

Topics: Hardware, Collaboration

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  • Backing up...

    I use Microsoft's free backup utility for Outlook. Every week (it is configurable) Outlook copies my personal folders to a server. Simple and easy. The best way to go? Maybe not, but it's not on my local system, and the server backups are stored in an off-site location.
  • I regularly back up all my email archives

    and not just the Outlook PSTs. In fact, I use Outlook only to connect to our office's Exchange Server. So it's business only and doesn't get too terribly large. I also backup all of my Thunderbird data for 5 POP3 accounts too.

    I would never use or suggest that Outlook ever connect to anything outside the firewall. I use Evolution on my Linux laptop. Too bad Evolution is a Gnome only client. Any ideas about alternatives to Outlook on Windows?
    • Yep...

      You already mentioned an excellent alternative to Outlook on Windows. Thunderbird works in both Linux and Windows just fine.
    • Evolution for Windows

      Evolution has been ported to Windows. See http://shellter.sourceforge.net/evolution/
      • garageware

        Wow Evolution for Windows looks like a shareware app someone developed in their garage and looks like a cheap knock off of Outlook 2003, very original ;(

        Typical app look for linux software though. Very blah and utilitarian. Spartan if you will.
        • Well except for the fact

          that it works where Outlook 2003 doesn't. You know like the little problem with large archive or email files. Or the price thing yeah, nothing like not having to install bloatware to get the piece of software you actually need. And not to mention you don't have to pay for the afore mentioned bloat.
          • yes but...

            Outlook works in Windows Vista, 32bit and 64bit. Evolution doesn't, that's why it isn't free. If you believe someone else's hard earned work should be free to everyone and let the programmer starve and live in a cardboard box, then you need to live in a communist country.

            Free software is someone's hobby and somthing they like to do for fun with limited support and that's what you get with free software. Software that works and has dedicated support costs money.
    • Evoulution for Windows

      Try Here


      Worked well for me, course then I switched to linux anyway
  • Let's set some facts straight on Exchange

    Exchange doesn't require you to archive email, there's no reason you can't support multi-gigabyte mail boxes. Storage is so cheap these days that you can give the average Exchange user 10 GBs or more even if you have 1000 users.
    • I must have missed it

      Where in the article does he mention that Exchange requires you to archive email? Did MS fix Exchange's inefficient datastore in in the 2003 and/or 2007 versions (my experience was with 2000 and 98)?
      • Yes

        We just installed Exchange 2007 (Migrated from Groupwise) and they have done many things to make the data storage more efficient from what I have read and seen. One thing is that if an attachment is sent to multiple people it is stored once on the server instead of 100 times if the mail was sent to 100 people. I really have no experience in previous versions, but Exchange 2007 is rather nice and efficient from what I have seen so far. It is also rather easy to manage compared to groupwise.
        • Single instance storage has been around for a long time

          Single instance storage has been around for a long time, as early as Exchange 2000 or even earlier. What they have done is make it possible to break out the database in to more pieces to make it more efficient and scalable.
          • Remember

            Remember though that single instance storage counts per mailbox store. If a message is sent to many recipients and they exist on different mailbox stores you will save the message/attachment that many times across the multiple mailbox stores. Its still better then nothing though.

            PST's should really not be used for archive purposes anyway as they have to adhere to the 2GB limit and can become corrupt once that limit has been reached (I've seen it happen many times)

            If your company is big enough and possibly has enough money I would recommend a system similar to the HP RISS system which archives e-mail and removes it from the Exchange server and keeps it virtually forever. It places tombstones on the exchange server pointing at the RISS system and even allows you to access them via OWA.
          • 2GB limit no longer the case IF

            Starting with Outlook 2003 the 2GB limit for PST files no long applies; starting with Outlook 2003 the max file size limit now is 20GB. However, if you are migrating from previous versions of Outlook to Outlook 2003/2007 then you must import your older PST into the NEW 20GB file format.
          • Thanks for the update

            We typically work with Office XP so I didn't know anything about the "NEW 20GB limit".

            However in Exchange 2003 if you use Exmerge to dump information from a Mailbox to a PST (for recovery purposes) it still uses the old format so you are bound by 2GB PSTs. Does anyone know if this was changed in Exchange 2007?
          • But who wants to risk losing a 20gb archive?

            And have you ever tried to open Outlook 2003 after it locks up with a 20gb archive attached? Hope you have a few hours to wait while it checks the mailbox.
        • Has your information store gotten corrupted yet?

          My experience was mainly with Exchange 2000, but we could count on at least twice a year having to restore from backup because Exchanges information store had gotten so corrupted it couldn't be fixed. The only thing worse than losing emails from the two previous years is losing emails from the last 30 minutes...
          • probably not a problem with Exchange

            Sounds like you have a hardware issue, or possibly an issue with Symantec Antivirus directly scanning your information store and corrupting the data rather than using the specialized version Symantec Antivirus for Exchange to do it for you, or you are outgrowing the limit on the version of exchange you are using and need to upgrade to a more robust version that can handle a larger information store(i.e. Exchange Enterprise)
          • This was a few years back...

            ...and there were two major issues.

            The first was how Microsoft decided to handle resources. There was nothing besides telling users "Hey, please don't schedule a resource as a user" to keep them from doing it. This was guaranteed to corrupt that resources mailbox and seemed to have a pretty good possibility of corrupting the information store. This happened twice over the course of the two years I was doing the backup system adminstrative duties for this manufacturing company.

            The other two times it happened were not Microsoft's fault. Once was due to hardware failure, the other due to exceeding the database size.

            Sure, you could say "Why can't your stupid users just not schedule a resource as a user?" A better question is "Why can a user schedule a resource as a user if it's guaranteed to corrupt the mailbox?" In this particular case, Microsoft owes it to its customers to ensure that things they know are guaranteed to corrupt data simply can't be done wherever possible.
      • Re: I must have missed it

        He does, however, mention that sysadmins often encourage you to archive by enforcing limits on your mailbox size. I know that has been true in all the Exchange-using companies where I worked.