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PST Files: Myths and Truths

Monday, February 07, 2011 in Technical Articles (Views: 4470)
Since the beginning of Outlook in the 1997 release, PST files were used as a storage mechanism. The main reason for this is that in those days, Outlook was not primarily being used to connect to Exchange, rather to systems like POP mail. Companies like Earthlink, Netcom, and Yahoo were all offering options to download their mail to local computers, as opposed to the rich web based offerings of today.

In the corporate world, companies are still using PST files and connecting to Exchange. Why is this? Wasn't the purpose of Outlook and Exchange to eliminate PST files?

Well, yes and no. In the earlier days of Exchange's integration to Outlook, mailboxes were small and people usually didn't keep up with deleting data. In some companies, you would be handed a 10MB mailbox, and one person who sent an 8MB attachment of their kid's birthday party pictures could literally take an organization down. This is why PST files were used:
1. To take care of those who didn't want to clean up their mailbox
2. To allow users to keep those crippling and huge emails with birthday pictures
3. For an actual business purpose, to extend data usage for those who needed the space, but their mailbox was full.

The main drawback to the PST method is simple - users have to back up their own data, or IT people have to guess which files to back up. It also leaves no central repository for archiving, and if an IT organization needs to find a message for any purpose (usually legal if it's old enough), they would have to restore from old backups (assuming they still had them, or that the message was specific to a certain date). Needless to say, this model is a mess at best.

Why do users still use these files today? There are a lot of reasons, the biggest of which is that companies have not adopted email archiving solutions as of yet. An email archiving solution would keep user's emails on a seperate storage cloud and away from their local hard drive. Here are some reasons you can expect to hear from users (and the actual truths):

- I have a lot of information I still need access to.
Truth: User hasn't accessed these files in a couple of years, or some equivalent thereof. If you could delete these files without throwing an error to the user, most of the time they would never notice.

- There's a lot of important stuff I have backed up
Truth: The bake sale emails from 2003 probably are no longer relevant, unless they were held in your honor. If you're a diabetic, you can celebrate that anything you ate didn't kill you, even though it probably shortened your life.

- I just use it for reference
Truth: This could hold some merit, especially if the user is actually not adding data to it. But, PST files were meant to store data.

- I don't really use them, but they're nice to have
Truth: This is probably the most truthful of all. Of course, try deleting these files and the claws come out.

I do want to take a moment here and talk about the 2 different formats of PST files:
1. The Outlook 97-2002 format: This was the orginal format, and is limited to 2GB in size (for supportability). Why do you ask about the size of the file? Because in the days that this file was created, computers in many cases were still running FAT32 as a file system, with the maximum allowed file size being 2GB.
2. The Office 2003 and later format (later is defined as 2010, which was current as to the time of this blog): This is the newer and more updated file. This file, which runs on NTFS, supports sizes above 2GB. There is no "click and upgrade option" between the older and newer format, but to upgrade, you can just create a new file and drag your items into it.

In the next blog, I want to discuss how Outlook 2010 is working towards moving away from PST files, and some of the fun political landmines that can come from this...


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