Executive summary: I stupidly deleted my Exchange mailbox before noting or backing up some things that you can’t export to a .pst file. Skip to Part Five if you want to go directly to “lessons learned.”
Part One: The problem
I’d been having the strangest problem with my e-mail — OK, probably not THE strangest problem, but a pretty strange one nonetheless. I receive e-mail primarily on three different devices: my desktop, my laptop, and my Windows Mobile phone. All of these devices talk to my Microsoft Exchange mailbox, so in theory they should all receive exactly the same items. In practice, not so much. Out of the hundreds of messages I receive each week there would be a handful that would come through to one or two devices but not all three. It’s not that I was deleting the e-mail from one device before it could be delivered to the others. It was more like Exchange saying “hey, I told you about this message once already, what do you need it three times for?” More often than not, the messages were being delivered to my phone but not my computers, or sometimes to both my phone and my laptop, but not my desktop. The messages would usually appear on my desktop after I closed Outlook and opened it again, but since I essentially live and breathe in Outlook, I didn’t close and open it on a regular basis.
This was becoming a real problem, because I was not being made aware of some rather important messages. I had to get this fixed.
Part Two: Hoping for an easy solution
I tried the easy and obvious things first:
- Deleting and recreating my .ost files — the copy of my mailbox that live on my computers’ hard drives and get synchronized with my Exchange mailbox
- Uninstalling and reinstalling Outlook 2007 (this never happened to me with Outlook 2003)
- Creating new Outlook profiles
None of that worked. In fact, at one point in the troubleshooting process I ended up completely unable to open Outlook.
Part Three: The nuclear options
I was out of easy options, so I deleted my user profile on my desktop and rebuilt it from scratch. I was able to open Outlook now, but I was still missing messages. I figured the next step was to completely wipe out my hard drive. Since that’s a lot of work, I used the opportunity to upgrade from Windows XP to Vista.
On February 16, I did a semi-clean installation of Vista. (By semi-clean I mean that I didn’t install to a virgin hard disk, but I did install to a brand new Windows folder rather than simply upgrading from XP.) Between February 16 and March 20, I was fine. Everything was showing up in all three places.
Interestingly, March 20 was the last day that I was able to synchronize my Pocket PC phone with my desktop through the cradle. I’ve been having a lot of problems getting the phone to work with Vista. But that’s a story for another post. Still, this can’t be a coincidence.
So for the last three weeks I’ve been living with this problem again and trying to remember to check the mail on my phone periodically so I don’t miss anything.
Meanwhile, I wrote to the Microsoft Small Business Specialist Community newsgroups and asked the experts at Microsoft (in Shanghai) for their advice. Here’s what they said:
I understand that the problem persists after you upgraded your computer to Vista. At this point, the problem might be caused by your Exchange mailbox.
Please repair the mailbox following the steps below to see if it helps:
1. Open Outlook, click File-> Import and Export-> Export to a file-> Next->
Personal Folder File, and follow the prompt to backup your mailbox.
2. Open Active Directory Users and Computers (ADUC).
3. Click View, and select “Advanced Features”.
4. Open User Container.
5. Click Exchange Tasks.
6. Click Next on the Welcome page of the Exchange Task Wizard.
7. Click Delete Mailbox.
8. Click Next, click Next, and then click Finish.
9. Go to Exchange System Manager -> Organization -> Administrative Groups -> First Administrative Group -> Mailbox Store -> Mailboxes.
10. Right click Mailboxes and choose “Run Cleanup Agent”.
11. Right-click the mailbox, and then click Purge to permanently delete the mailbox. Click Yes to confirm the deletion.
12. Go back to ADUC, locate the problematic user account and right click it to choose Exchange Tasks.
13. Select “Create Mailbox” and click Next to finish the procedure.
14. Restore the backup to the new mailbox.
Part Four: That’ll teach you to follow the instructions
I’d been putting off this rather drastic procedure until I had more time, but after two days of missing multiple messages — this time on my laptop, not my desktop — I was fed up. I got home after a long day of work and another meeting after work and decided to fix this once and for all. Bad idea. I was tired, I wasn’t thinking very clearly, and I simply followed the 14 steps above in order.
At first the problems were fairly minor. For example, they left out a step between 4 and 5. You have to click on the user object first before clicking Exchange Tasks. No big deal, easy to figure out. I got a little frustrated at steps 10 and 11. You get no on-screen feedback when you run the cleanup agent, so it’s hard to tell when it’s done. I right-clicked my mailbox in step 11, and the Purge option was unavailable (grayed out). I looked in the event logs and it sure seemed like the cleanup agent had done its thing. But it took several more minutes before the little red X showed up on my mailbox and I was able to delete it. It was at that point that I started to realize just how incomplete the instructions from Microsoft were.
Part Five: The aftermath
OK, so here’s the payoff from this saga: things you ought to do before you delete your mailbox from the Exchange server.
- Write down all the aliases that you’ve assigned to your account. When you create a new mailbox, you will see that it has no addresses assigned to it whatsoever. I didn’t have much trouble remembering that I get mail at email@example.com, but I had at least a half-dozen other aliases (dave, dschrag, david.schrag, etc.) in there. If you’re such a stickler that you update your documentation every time you create an alias, good for you. I don’t. Oops.
- Export your rules (Tools, Rules and Alerts, Options, Export Rules).
- Write down all your search folder criteria. Search folders are great things. I had one that showed me all the messages I’d marked for follow-up. I had another that showed only the messages marked for follow-up that were in my inbox. I had one that showed only unread mail in my inbox. I had others, too, but I don’t remember what they were, and they’re all gone now. In addition to writing down what your criteria are, you might want to capture a screen shot of each one in case you have customized the way they are displayed. For example, I know I had the reading pane turned off in the unread mail folder.
- Write down which of your public folders you have saved as Favorites.
- If you’re using Outlook 2007, consider exporting your feed list to an OPML file and then deleting some or all of your feeds before exporting your mailbox to a .pst. Importing all the articles back can add a long time to the import process, so you probably want to dump articles that you’re unlikely to refer to again.
- Delete or rename your .ost file after you’ve deleted your mailbox but before you run Outlook again. If you don’t, you might get warning messages like these:
- If you forgot to write down your search folders and favorite public folders, don’t delete your .ost file yet. You won’t be able to see what your search criteria were, but at least you’ll be able to see what folders you had created. And you’ll be able to see the list of favorite public folders. The .ost file is no help with rules or aliases, though. And if you just deleted the .ost file in the previous step and you’re upset because I’m only now telling you not to delete the .ost file, then you’ve sort of missed the point of this whole piece.
- Before importing your .pst file back into your mailbox, check your mailbox’s storage limit. By default, SBS 2003 assigns a 200 MB limit. That’s nothin’. If you don’t change the limit back to what the old mailbox’s limit was, you’ll get a warning during the import and it will stop cold, with no opportunity to modify the limit and continue. Fortunately, it seems that you can simply re-run the import process without creating duplicates of everything it imported before the limit was reached.
I know I’ve got at least two Exchange MVP’s reading The Schlog. Maybe one of them knows a clever way to automate some or all of these things I should have done. Or maybe they know some other horrible side effect of deleting your mailbox that I haven’t even discovered yet. Either way, I hope they (and others) will chime in with comments on how and how not to go through the Exchange mailbox rebuilding process.
Oh, and by the way, I won’t even know for a few days or maybe even a few weeks whether as a result of this whole annoying exercise I even solved the original problem of the missing e-mail. I’ll try to remember to post an update.