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Centralising email storage

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This article discusses possible courses of action for businesses looking to centralise their email storage. A centralised mailstore simplifies and improves the performance and reliability of:

  1. backup and archiving
  2. auditing and security
  3. capacity management

Storing email on each user's computer (a decentralised store) creates problems when attempting to manage the above issues.

Email service is broken into two distinct parts, clients and servers. Both are pieces of software. Email client software is the software used by employees to type and read email. Email server software is used by the client software in order to send and receive mail to and from other clients. This article does not discuss email server software.

Outlook Express

Outlook Express is the email client with which most businesses start. This is for a number of reasons:

  1. it comes pre-installed with the operating system
  2. staff usually know how to use it already
  3. it's free

However it has a number of drawbacks, the most serious of which is its inability to place its mailstore on a network drive. That is, the email must be kept on each user's computer, not on a central server. This inability of Outlook Express appears to be a deliberate oversight by Microsoft to encourage users to purchase Outlook, a separate product discussed below.

Thus, Outlook Express is not suited for use in a professional environment, as it creates problems with backup, security and capacity. Another name for the program might be "Outlook Lite".


Outlook is the full-featured commercial email client from Microsoft. It is usually the next choice for most businesses. However, it has one serious gotcha: it requires Windows 2000 SP3+, or Windows XP. It will not run on Windows 95, 98, 98SE or ME. This inability of Outlook appears to be a deliberate oversight by Microsoft to encourage users to purchase Windows XP.

This means that businesses wishing to run Outlook must upgrade all their computers to Windows 2000 SP3+, or Windows XP. This in turn normally requires a hardware upgrade, as machines running legacy Windows versions are usually of sufficient vintage to be too slow for business use, when Windows 2000 or XP is loaded upon them. Certainly they will be less responsive than before, given the machine is now doing more with the same hardware it had previously.

So the end game is basically that for a business to store their email centrally, and use Outlook as a client, they must buy a new computer for each user, if that user was previously using Windows 95, 98, 98SE or ME.

If using an alternative to Outlook is not an option, then new hardware is required. If buying new hardware is not an option, then Outlook cannot be used. Outlook will not run on old hardware as it needs Windows 2000 SP3+, or Windows XP, which do not perform acceptably on old hardware.

Outlook = new hardware for legacy Windows systems.

non-Microsoft clients

The route for businesses seeking to keep their legacy systems, but still store mail centrally, is to use an alternative email client such as Eudora, Pegasus Mail or Thunderbird. These programs all run on Windows 98 or above. They provide all the key features of Outlook, without requiring a hardware upgrade.

Businesses are understandably concerned that they are taking on an unknown quantity when they adopt non-Microsoft software. To an extent they are right, however the number of individuals worldwide who use these programs, and their underlying sturdiness, ensures that problems will be fixed. The nervousness is more due to fear of the unknown than to any specific issue, particularly as all three programs have attributes that automatically make them superior to Outlook:

  • In an emergency, a business can read Pegasus Mail mailboxes by hand. They are not encoded, unlike Outlook.
  • In an emergency, a business can call Eudora for support. Microsoft support is also available - but it's much more expensive, and the chances of getting a non-critical bug fixed before the next big release are nil.
  • In an emergency, a business can rewrite Thunderbird from scratch. The sourcecode is publically available and anyone can add, remove or change any feature from the copies of Thunderbird they use.

The most valid criticism of non-Microsoft software is the training cost associated with learning how the new software works. This is because employees usually are not familiar with the alternative packages. The designers are aware of this, and all three programs include Outlook-like interfaces. By providing a familiar interface, the software reduces the training cost, almost to zero in some cases.

The recommended course of action for businesses seeking to centralise their email storage, while retaining their legacy systems, is to evaluate the alternatives on a test system. As well as establishing the software works correctly, this will also provide insight as to the difficulty involved in learning the new application. It may be that the design of the new application is sufficiently close to Outlook that minimal training, if any, is required.


1: This discussion has not covered email servers at all. Here it is assumed that the server is POP3 and remotely hosted (eg. owned and managed by a different company). The Microsoft server software "Exchange" could be used to provide an inhouse email server; this would centralise the email and thus achieve the objective. However Exchange is expensive and requires expensive server hardware as well. It is not required to centralise storage, however. As long as the client email software can store its mail on the network, email can be centralised. This can be done, without Exchange, by all the programs mentioned, except Outlook Express.

2: In some circumstances (heavy bandwidth, slow network, lots of users, high security), an Exchange server may be more suitable. If this proves to be the case (it may only become apparent over time), an Exchange server can later be added without difficulty to a network using any of the programs mentioned. That is, Exchange does not require that all its users are Outlook users.

Dismissed non-options

  • Quickly buy the last remaining copies of Windows 2000 and install it on all machines currently running Windows 98 - a bad idea, the performance hit will drive your employees insane, and the machines will get so hammered, they will soon die, and then you'll be back to buying new computers.
  • Run pirated Outlook 98/2000 or pirated Windows 2000 - a bad idea, not only illegal but also very insecure, and unable to patch without dobbing yourself in.
  • Run a mixed Outlook Express/Outlook environment - a bad idea, this will be confusing, create additional problems (migration, management, training), and if a user's email isn't important, why do they have it in the first place? Ie. all users' email is important, therefore central storage is required and Outlook Express is not an option for anyone.