Office 365 Import Service Limitations: Navigating Roadbumps

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Microsoft recently announced that their Office 365 Import Service is now available to all customers as a preview. In my previous blog, I looked into what they are actually providing and what this means for customers, and concluded that whilst it is a useful tool, it is not a complete solution for resolving the problems of PST files.

In this second look at the topic, I am following up with a deeper look at some of the areas the Office 365 Import Service doesn’t cover. We often talk about the three steps of a PST management project being locating, migrating and eliminating PST files so I’ll follow that approach.

Issue 1.  LOCATING – How do you find PST files?

Import service does not find all your PST fliesThe very first thing you will need to do is to identify all the PST files in your organization, and to me this is the biggest problem with using the Office 365 Import Service, particularly if you have a large number of PST files.

Most IT departments will have a reasonable idea where to look for PST files.  They are usually found on end-user devices and user network drives, but these files can of course end up almost anywhere, and the Import Service can’t help you with finding them.

In order to discover every PST file in your organization you will need to do a thorough scan of every end user device as well as every network location where PST files are likely to be stored.  Once each PST file has been located, you will need to work out who the owner is for that file, and then decide what to do with it or which mailbox you want to import it into.

Sometimes identifying the owner is easy, for instance it may be attached to an Outlook user profile.  But in other cases, such as when it is on a network drive, you may need to open the file and see what’s inside in order to decide the most likely owner.

This whole area can turn into a very significant manual exercise, and due to the unpredictable nature of the task, will be difficult to manage.  This is where some of the third party tools such as our own PST Enterprise can be a great help, and will save a lot of time and effort.  They can largely automate the whole PST discovery and identification process, and can even remove the password on any protected files if needed.

Issue 2: MIGRATING – How do you centralize your PST files?

You have to move all your PST files into one central location before you can use the Import ServiceThe next problem is that the Import Service requires that all PST files are assembled in a central location first, before they are uploaded or shipped to Office 365.  There can be a very significant amount of data stored in each PST file, and you will want to minimize the impact of moving that volume of data across your network.  You will need to give careful thought as to how you are going to manage process this without causing bottlenecks on the network and adversely impacting day‑to‑day operations for the rest of the business.

On top of that, network connections can be unreliable, and end users may well shut down their machine or disconnect from the network at any time.  You will need to ensure the method you use for centralizing data can cope with these situations, and ideally it should be able to resume the transfer of each file from the point where it was interrupted, without having to reprocess any data.

In both of these areas third party solutions can make a big difference by automating and actively managing the movement of data across the network.

Issue 3:  MIGRATE – How do you decide which data you need to move?

For best results, filter the data you need to import first.  Why import obsolete data that has no business valueThe easiest way to reduce the size of your PST migration project and make it more manageable is to limit the amount of data you actually have to import into Office 365 using the Import Service.  There are a couple of good ways this can be achieved.

Firstly, if you have an email retention policy then you should delete any data that is obsolete or no longer needed based on this retention policy.  The best time to do this is of course before you centralize it.  You should only retain and centralize data that has ongoing value to you or that needs to be kept for compliance reasons.  This can mean opening up and looking inside each PST file to determine what’s actually stored in it, and you may well end up finding there are some PST files that can be deleted completely.

The second way to limit the amount of data to import is to remove any duplication.  There are many reasons why PST files (or the contents within them) end up being duplicated across the organisation.  For instance, users can leave files behind when they move to a new role or switch to using a new device.  Backup and restore processes can create additional copies, and users often keep local copies of individual emails for a whole range of reasons.  This duplicate data will almost always have been forgotten until it is rediscovered by your PST migration project.

It is almost impossible to perform deduplication or apply retention policies effectively without some sort of automated solution.  The Office 365 Import Service doesn’t provide any kind of deduplication or data refining, but once again third party solutions can help you here.  They can ensure that all duplicate data is eliminated, will select only the data you need to import, and will delete the rest completely.

Issue 4.  ELIMINATE – How do you delete your PST files afterwards?

Import Service doesn't delete your old PST files or stop users creating new ones. The final step in a project to import PST files should be to delete each file from its original location after it has been imported.  Not only will this regain storage space, it will avoid confusion for end users.  Some files may need to be disconnected from Outlook before they can be deleted, and user settings should be changed so that new PST files can no longer be created.

Once again, this is another time‑consuming manual process not covered by the Office 365 Import Service, but it is a process which automated solutions can cover for you.

Some other issues to think about

Organizations may want to give some of their end users, such as senior managers or users with sensitive data, the ability to decide how their own PST files are managed.  For instance, they may want to decide which data to keep or delete, or to where each file is imported to in Office 365.  So the ability to provide end-user self-service is something you might want to bear in mind, but which is not provided by the Import Service.

The other point that is sometimes mentioned is “chain of custody”.  In this case it is about being able to document each step every email goes through during the end‑to‑end migration or import process, and to demonstrate that the email which is eventually added to the Office 365 mailbox is substantially the same as the one that was original discovered on an end-user’s machine.  Although Microsoft have suggested that this will be available for the Office 365 Import Service at some point, it is not currently provided by them.

In Conclusion

Road Sign Narrow BridgeThe Office 365 Import Service is a great development from Microsoft, and addresses the central problem of how to upload large amounts of email data into the Microsoft’s online Exchange Servers.  There are many situations where it could prove invaluable, so it should certainly be welcomed.  However it is clearly just a tool that bridges the gap, addressing one aspect of managing PST files, not offering a full solution.  I have mentioned third party solutions a lot here, but the area of PST Management is one where they can still make a big difference.

Products such as our own PST Enterprise have been developed and enhanced over several years, and now provide a very comprehensive set of capabilities that automate and manage the whole end‑to‑end process of locating, migrating and eliminating PST files.  For larger organisations, or for those with more complex or distributed environments, they will always prove to be more cost‑effective once you factor in all the additional tasks I have described here.

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