Email backup should be the simplest task in the backup calendar, but it rarely turns out to be so. Outlook – the market leader – is best used with a cloud of other Microsoft messaging system around it, but anyone who dares to use it on an isolated basis will have to watch out for themselves.
If your company has an Exchange server setup then the backups will do done for you on a periodic basis, usually a week, and all that is needed is a call to the sysadmin to get a restore. If you work for a small business, or are on your own, the world might be a lot more complicated.
This article assumes that email is not left on or used with an Exchange server, and that email backup from the client is a critical task. The main reasons that Outlook backup on standalone PCs is important is data loss and migration from one machine to another. It’s only been with the arrival of XP and Office 2003 that Microsoft has started to pay attention to the fact that people other than corporate users have been using Outlook for their POPmail, and need tools and guidance to make the process easier.
1: The long way
In principle, it should be an easy if manual process – just back up the relevant files, specifically the Outlook .pst file (containing email, folders, contacts and calendar), on a regular basis. There are a number of ways to find this file in the blizzard of directories on a hard disk, the easiest of which is to use the MAIL setup in Control Panel. Click on this, the click on Data files, then Personal Folders, then settings. The directory path to the .pst file will be visible. This file can be copied manually, or noted to be added to a backup schedule.
Unfortunately, as simple as this sounds, the .pst file has to be created from within Outlook on a regular basis. Its creation is not automatic, and this is where most of the problems begin. The manual operation involves using the import and export feature on the FILE menu, and following the prompts using “export to file”. There are several types of output file – which go unexplained of course – but the one to choose is the “Personal Folder File (.pst)” option. Using any of the others will necessitate adding a filter from the Office install CD. Are any of these alternative file formats useful? Only perhaps if you want to export for import into a separate database, otherwise they should be ignored.
Make sure to select the correct root folder in Outlook, and to click the check box that specifes to copy sub-folders. Depending on the version of Outlook (i.e not the cut-down Outlook Express), there will be an option to compress and encrypt the data, and add a password.
2. The simpler way
Being a Microsoft application, there is always a simpler but less obvious way to do all this. Just click FILE, then NEW, then “Outlook Data file”. Copy that file. Just remember where you copied it from when the time comes to copy back. See Microsoft’s description.
3. The best option
The main issue with these solutions is that they involve the user remembering to back up the file manually, an obvious weakness. But there is another way that an amazing number of people don’t know about. For some time now, Microsoft has offered a 160K plug-in for outlook that turns Outlook backup into a one-command task that can also be configured to remind the user to run the command on a scheduled basis.
The tool can be found here, installs in seconds, and puts a simple “backup” command on to the File menu. Open this and folder (data) files and archives can be selected for backup as needed. It also automates the restore process, so no need to remember which directory the .pst must go in as would be needed when using the above methods.
Make sure this backup setup has been tested, perhaps using a second dummy email account. Create the account, import a .pst, then back it up using the plug-in command. No point in getting to the desperate day when a reinstall is needed only to discover that not all the folders or emails have backed up correctly. It does happen.
So why bother with options 1 and 2 at all? It never hurts to know your enemy, particularly if (as is possible), the backup is being made while the PC hard disk is failing and won’t allow certain types of menus or Windows functions to be accessed. In that case – if the above software is not functioning properly – there is a final line of defence called MS-DOS which will allow you to get at the *.pst file.
Access DOS (type “cmd”), and hunt for the file using the DIR command in the Outlook sub-directory below C:/Program Files. I encountered precisely this problem recently, and the command that saved the day was a piece of DOS poetry. The following found the file, allowing the simple copy command (with verification) to be wielded once the file had been located.
DIR C:\ /s /b | FIND “*.pst”
Using Outlook Express? It’s not as easy to do, but Microsoft provides the basics on its website.