Mailbox archiving and cleanup tools

I field a lot of questions about how best to manage messages, which might not surprise you. What might surprise you is the answer: A variety of management methods and tools are available to help you organize, archive, and scan messages. Even when you have this variety of tactics at your disposal, you can compare message management with herding cats. The messages themselves aren't unruly or independent-minded, but your Microsoft Exchange Server users might be. Choosing the best tactics for each specific management task and considering these tactics' effects on users increase your chances of message-management success.

Help Users Help Themselves
The simplest message-management tactics are archiving and cleanup. Ideally, users know how to archive their messages. When a company charges users for mail storage, the users usually learn to archive rather than spend department money on large hard disks. However, I'm not a fan of chargeback schemes. Convince your users that taking responsibility for their mailboxes is in their best interest, and you might reduce your servers' archival and storage loads.

Microsoft Outlook 2000 and the forthcoming Outlook 2002 let users archive messages in several ways. Each archival method revolves around Outlook's ability to use personal store (.pst) files. Usually, I staunchly oppose PSTs. Server-side storage is more efficient and easier to manage: PSTs have 2GB size limits, they're easily corrupted, and only one client can open each .pst file at a time, so backups are difficult. However, PSTs fill the bill for casual message archival: You can use multiple PSTs, Outlook can mount any or all of these files at the same time, and users can easily move messages between .pst files without any help from you.

I suggest you teach your users how to use the simplest archiving method: Create a .pst file and drag messages into it. In Outlook 2002, do the following:

  1. Select File, Data File Management from the menu bar.
  2. Click Add in the resulting Outlook Data Files dialog box to create a new .pst file.
  3. Specify a location on the network server or the local machine for the .pst file. Choose a frequently backed-up location if you want the messages you're archiving to be around in 5 years.
  4. Name the file and specify the type of encryption you want to use.
  5. Click Close.

The process is different in Outlook 2000, but the results are the same. The file you create appears as a separate item in the Outlook folder list. From outside of Outlook, you can copy and move the underlying .pst file at will. If you burn these files to a CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) disc, then can't open them, don't assume the files are corrupt; you can't open PSTs marked as read-only or stored on a read-only medium. To read PSTs copied to a CD-RW disc, copy the files to a hard disk, then open them from the disk.

After you've created a .pst file, the next step is to archive items to the file. You can drag items in and out of the file, or you can use Outlook's archiving features: Auto-Archive and the File menu's Archive option. AutoArchive's raison d'étre is to migrate items from selected folders to a .pst file at intervals you specify (the default interval is every 14 days). Settings in Outlook 2000's and Outlook 2002's AutoArchive dialog box control this tool's behavior. Figure 1, page 92, shows the dialog box in Outlook 2002. To open the dialog box, select Options from the Tools menu and click AutoArchive on the Other tab. The check boxes' labels describe the tool's options adequately, and Outlook's Help explains the options in more detail.

In addition to setting general AutoArchive options, you can set AutoArchive options for individual Outlook folders. Simply right-click the folder, click Properties, and switch to the AutoArchive tab. You can use this tab's settings to override any default AutoArchive properties or properties you set previously. For example, you can use this feature to keep AutoArchive from automatically archiving a folder. Rather than waiting for AutoArchive's set intervals, you can use the File menu's Archive option to manually move specified items from your primary storage location to a .pst file.

Law requires some organizations to keep copies of all email traffic. In this situation, making backup tapes of your entire server is the easiest solution. However, I'm somewhat skeptical that reading circa-2001 tape won't be a problem 25 years from now. You might not want to use PSTs for formal archiving either, but you can use archival techniques to keep required records. In ad-dition, several vendors offer industrial-strength archiving and retrieval products (e.g., KVault Software's—KVS's—Enterprise Vault). These products' retrieval capabilities are especially useful, letting you pluck out of your archives a single message or thread without needing to restore your entire archive library.

Cleaning Mailboxes
Every so often, you need to deep-clean your office. You recycle, donate, or throw out old magazines, obsolete computer parts, and miscellaneous odds and ends. Every so often, you also need to deep-clean mailboxes. Users get touchy when you throw away messages randomly. The best way to overcome these user objections—apart from declaring, "I'm the mail administrator, and what I say goes"—is to throw away messages systematically, taking message age into account. Mailbox Manager (available in Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server with Service Pack 1—SP1—and Exchange Server 5.5) automates age-based cleaning.

Mailbox Manager, the latest incarnation of the venerable Mailbox Cleanup Agent, runs as a service on Exchange Server 5.5 SP2 and later. You can install Mailbox Manager from the SP3 or later CD-ROM's support \mbmngr directory, or you can download the support tools file for SP3 (sp3_55ss.exe) from the Microsoft Web site. Mailbox Manager processes, moves, and deletes items according to the age limit you set for the item's folder, the item's location, and other conditions you specify. For example, you can set separate age limits for the Inbox and Contacts folders, and you can specify that Mailbox Manager move outdated Inbox items to the Deleted Items folder and delete outdated Contacts items immediately. As a bonus, Mailbox Manager can run in two modes: In Audit mode, the service sends mail messages to users telling them which messages it will clean; in Cleanup mode Mailbox Manager cleans without sending these warnings. Mailbox Manager's documentation details the process, and the Microsoft article "XADM: Understanding How and When Mailbox Manager Processes Items" (http://support.microsoft.com/support/kb/articles/q258/7/58.asp) explains how the service makes decisions to handle specific items.

Outlook 2002 also includes a cleanup feature. From the Tools menu, you can access the Mailbox Cleanup dialog box, which Figure 2 shows. This feature offers age-based cleanup for single mailboxes. Mailbox Cleanup works similarly to Mailbox Manager and has the advantage—or in some situations, disadvantage—of letting users clean their mailboxes.

If users are cooperative, you can rely on them to clean their mailboxes when you ask nicely; if they're uncooperative, you can run Mailbox Manager on the server and enforce cleanliness on messy mailboxes. (Of course, if users are completely uncooperative, you can simply delete their mailboxes. However, they'll probably catch on to this tactic after the second or third time you try it.)

But Wait! There's More!
What about those of you whose message-management needs are more complex? Are you doomed to suffer a terrible fate? No—Exchange lets you impose storage limits on users, archive message traffic for particular users and servers, and scan message content. I'll address these management tasks in upcoming columns. In the meantime, drop by Slipstick Systems' Housekeeping and Message Management page (http://www.slipstick.com/addins/housekeeping.htm) for Sue Mosher's comprehensive list of tools, and see Tony Redmond, "Mailbox Management," October 2000, for more management methods.