How to Pre-empt Common Problems in Microsoft Outlook

OutlookThere is little doubt that Microsoft Outlook is one of the leading forces on the desktop email client front, a fact concurred by at least one survey of email clients.  While the increasing acceptance and popularity of Web-based email means that the overall use of Exchange and Outlook has declined in recent years, the majority of corporations are still reliant on Outlook to conduct their business.

With the recent release of Microsoft Outlook for Mac 2011, the relevance of Exchange and Outlook looks set to stay.  As you can imagine, it makes sense for a server administrator to not only ensure that the company’s Exchange server is properly maintained and backed-up, but that the desktop side of things run smoothly too.  So what are some common problems in Microsoft Outlook, and what can the savvy IT professional do to pre-empt them before they happen?

  • Standardizing on newer versions of Outlook

It is in an organisation’s best interest to standardize on the same version of Microsoft Outlook.  The benefits are many, and are primarily related to productivity gains in not having to support disparate versions of the same software.  Also, it is far easier for administrators to test out new security patches of service packs on a reference system and know that it will behave in the same way when rolled out across the company.

In addition, it is generally a good idea to upgrade to a newer version of the Microsoft Outlook client for new features and heightened security.  Older versions might no longer be covered by security patches from Microsoft, while newer iterations tend to incorporate up-to-date security best practices.  As a reaction to image and malware spam for example, Outlook 2003 and later no longer load images in HTML e-mails automatically or permit opening executable attachments by default, and comes with a rudimentary junk filter.

  • Deploy Microsoft Outlook not Outlook Express

It might sound strange, but I’ve seen my fair share of businesses that use Outlook Express with their Exchange infrastructure.  Typical reasons range from the cost of having to purchase Microsoft Outlook to users indicating a preference for Outlook Express.  To be sure, only Microsoft Outlook offers MAPI client access in order to fully leverage the inherent capabilities of Microsoft Exchange.  Despite the similarity in their names, Outlook Express (and its replacement, the recently released Windows Live Mail 2011) is designed to function as a standard email client.

The downside of retrieving emails via POP is that data can become irretrievably lost should workstation crash and backups are not in place.  While I don’t have the numbers to prove it, my experiences with Outlook Express and Microsoft Outlook is that the latter tends to be more robust and stable.

  • Keep the mailbox lean

Any administrators or IT managers are no doubt acutely aware of the benefits of a lean mailbox.  Your typical users do not know that, unfortunately.  Regardless, below are some pointers of what you can do to help employees keep their mailboxes lean.

Run Autoarchive regularly

If run regularly, this magical tool will go a long way towards helping your users keep their mailboxes in shape.  Emails that are older than a predefined limit can be automatically moved into an archival file, bringing down the size of the inbox.  By default, the Autoarchive tool will launch every 14 days, so ensure that its configuration is tweaked accordingly and users do not disable the tool when it is scheduled to run.  And yes, it also makes sense to ensure that the resultant archive is part of your corporation’s backup regime.

Impose limits on large attachments

I once saw a question on a forum enquiring about the maximum file size allowable under Microsoft Outlook.  One witty response went along the line of “You are using a screw to chop wood,” which I thought to be an apt description.  The fact is that users will end up sending large attachments via email because they forgot to first check on the size of the file.  While not a cure-all solution, administrators need to impose limits on large attachments, and also create alternative ways of transferring files – such as FTP – that users can tap into.

Empty the Deleted folder

It might surprise you, but there are users who like to leave trash lying around, so to speak.  To help them along, you can empty the “Deleted Items” folder on a regular basis in order to reduce the size of their mailboxes.  Thankfully, Outlook has precisely this option under the “Empty the Deleted Items folder upon exiting” checkbox under Options.

Compact Outlook data files regularly

Finally, it pays to periodically compact Outlook’s data file under File -> Data File Management.  This will bring down the size of the file and maximize available hard disk space.

Written by Paul Mah

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