Outlook's risky archives - and how to fix them

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?


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