What's to Be Done with PSTs: Capture, Migrate, Eliminate?

If a tool falls in the marketplace and no one notices, does it make a sound? Or rather, is it a tool anyone needs? Last month, Microsoft released an update for its PST Capture tool, announced through the Exchange team blog, and although the initial release of this tool last year was met with quite a bit of enthusiasm, the update to 2.0 seems to have engendered raging indifference. So, does PST Capture not fulfill the needs of organizations or is the demand for PST migration simply not there?

To be fair, PST Capture 2.0 is by all accounts a fairly minor update. In addition to bug fixes and "general performance improvements," the new version has been updated to work with Microsoft Exchange Server 2013; the initial release of the tool worked only with Exchange 2010. The other big feature is removal of the 1,000-user limit in the UI for importing data to Exchange Online. In other words, the tool doesn't do anything tremendously different now than before the update, so perhaps it's no surprise no one is talking much about it.

Related: Those Dreaded PSTs: Your All-In-One Resource

What PST Capture does now, as from the beginning, is help businesses find data users have squirreled away in PSTs on their local machines and across the network, and then bring that data back into Exchange so that it can be managed properly for retention and compliance. "There's a general feeling in the IT community that we'd be better off without PSTs, especially with compliance issues," said Srinivasan Balaji, director of Exchange Solutions for Sherpa Software. "Having oversight over that data is probably more important now than it's ever been. You'd think centralizing that data would be the preferred route."

Exchange Server email management with PST files: yield signSherpa Software's Mail Attender email management tool provides PST migration as well as many other features, such as managing PSTs where they're currently located. "Going back the past twelve months, I would say it's been an even mix of people that have bought Mail Attender to manage PSTs versus people that have bought it to migrate them," Balaji said. "And I'm surprised -- honestly, I thought PSTs would be vanishing faster than that."

Echoing what is undoubtedly a common theme, Balaji said, "PSTs are a nightmare for IT admins." This is a subject that goes back to Exchange 2003, when Microsoft first talked about eliminating PSTs, or perhaps even earlier. Of course, users and admins have also become dependent on them. Recognizing this paradox, Balaji said, "I do think organizations are running into this as well: We can't just turn PSTs off. We've got a ton of historical data in there."

One of the great benefits Mail Attender has over PST Capture is the ability to move PSTs more granularly. Whereas PST Capture moves the entire PST at once, Mail Attender moves the PST message by message. In case of network interruption, Mail Attender can resume the import where it left off. Sherpa has also developed administrative controls for defining ownership of PSTs, which can help ensure data is imported into the correct end-user mailboxes.

On the Microsoft side, PST Capture is a free tool -- always a popular option -- and it works for migrating PSTs to Microsoft Office 365. Mail Attender is expected to be updated for Office 365 compatibility later this year. And PST Capture clearly works for what it's intended, as this tweet from Andy Kemp, an IT consultant in Scotland, shows:

‏@andrew_kemp: been using #PSTCapture for an @office365 migration this weekend, not an ideal way to migrate but it does the basics, gets email into 365 :)

I followed up with Kemp on his experience with the tool. He noted that, because it can only move one PST at a time, it isn't very fast. Also, "The tool takes a wee while to receive the list of users from 365 to match the PST file to the online mailbox," he said. Naturally, the free tool doesn't have the extensive features of something you'd pay for, but ultimately, it "does what you need it to do," Kemp said. But he added, "If I was going to use it going forward for large-scale PST imports, then I'd probably setup a 'farm' of them to process more than one PST at a time."

PSTs always seem to be a hot topic for Exchange admins, not to mention long-time Exchange end-users. "To be honest, I don't think that we'll ever get away from PST files," Kemp said. "Businesses are definitely still clinging on to them, even as much as they say they are trying to get away from them!" That's probably true, which means it's great that organizations have options for managing or migrating that data.

Learn More: PST Capture: Congratulations and some caveats from Transvault's CTO

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
Follow Windows IT Pro on Twitter at @windowsitpro

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