A lot of companies out there still use Outlook 97; yours might be one of them. Unfortunately, the remote mail and synchronization features in Outlook 97 aren’t very intuitive, so you might be puzzling over the best way to provide remote access to users’ mailboxes and ensure reliable synchronization. I’ll explain the options you have for synchronizing Exchange mailboxes from Outlook 97 and working remotely by setting up Remote Mail. You can apply these methods for both Exchange Server 5.5 and Exchange 2000 Server.

Synchronization and offline files
If a user works from a desktop and the Exchange Server is located on the same LAN, the user will be able to access his or her Exchange mailbox and its contents without interruption, unless the server goes down or other network problems prevent users from connecting to it. If a user works from a notebook or remote location, however, chances are good that he or she won’t have a connection to the server all the time. Even on a desktop with a persistent network connection, the server could be offline at times when a user needs to work in Outlook.

To continue to work with Outlook data when not connected to the network, your users can use offline files in Outlook whether they use a network connection or dial-up to the LAN. To set up Outlook to use an offline file, the users need to connect to the server at least once so Outlook can perform the initial synchronization. First, you should connect to the LAN or dial into the remote access server for the user. While connected, open the properties for his or her user profile and then open the properties for Exchange Server. Click the Advanced tab and then click Offline Folder File Settings.

In the Offline Folder File Settings dialog box, specify the name and location of the offline file on the user’s local computer (offline files use an OST file extension). You can also configure encryption settings for the file. In general, you should use the Compressible Encryption option to provide protection for the user’s data, but still allow the operating system to safely compress the file. This assumes the user is using compression on the drive on which the OST file is stored. The Best Encryption option also allows compression but not to the same degree as the Compressible Encryption option.

After you configure the offline file, you need to perform an initial synchronization with Exchange Server to synchronize the mailbox and the offline file. While online, in Outlook, choose Tools | Synchronize | All Folders. After the synchronization is complete, you can disconnect and the user can start working offline. Outlook will handle the online/offline status automatically. For example, if a user is offline and creates a new e-mail message, Outlook will place it in the local Outbox and wait until the server is available to send the message. Changes in other OST folders will be applied to the mailbox when the user synchronizes those folders.

If the user mainly works offline, configure the properties for Exchange Server in the user’s profile to start offline by default. You’ll find the Work Offline And Use Dial-Up Networking option on the General tab of the Exchange Server properties. Enable the option Choose The Connection Type When Starting if you want the user to be able to choose between online and offline modes when Outlook starts.

Setting up Remote Mail
Another challenge that remote users often face is the time it takes to download messages with large attachments. It can be a real pain if users have several waiting messages with attachments and are working from a relatively slow dial-up connection. Outlook’s Remote Mail feature can ease the problem.

Remote Mail lets a user download the headers for messages without downloading the messages themselves. Users can review the headers offline, marking them for download or deletion. They then connect and process the messages. So, if users have handfuls of messages in their Inboxes that have attachments or several junk messages they don’t want to download, they can either mark them for deletion or simply not mark them for any action (leaving them on the server for processing later).

Your users can use Remote Mail for an Exchange Server account only if you disable their offline folders for them. You can reenable the original OST file after using Remote Mail, if needed, but there’s a catch. The users must be using a set of personal folders (PST files) as their default mail store to use Remote Mail. You’ll also need to change the default mail storage location from the Exchange Server to the personal folders. This makes Remote Mail useful in a pinch when users need to get around a big attachment or corrupted message, but it makes it impractical to use on a regular basis if a user prefers to keep his or her Outlook data in the Exchange mailbox. In general, I don’t recommend that you switch to Remote Mail unless you’re prepared to move the user’s entire Inbox from the Exchange Server to the personal folders.

If you do need to switch a user to Remote Mail, first add a set of personal folders to his or her profile. Then, choose Tools | Services, and open the properties for Exchange Server. Click Advanced, select Offline Folder File Settings, and then click Disable Offline Use. Close the Exchange Server property sheet and click the Delivery tab. Select Personal Folders from the drop-down list and click OK.

To use Remote Mail, the user will open Outlook in offline mode. Connect to the network and choose Tools | Remote Mail | Connect. Make sure Microsoft Exchange Server is selected and click Next. Select Do Only The Following, select Retrieve New Messages Headers Via Microsoft Exchange Server, and then click Finish. After Outlook finishes downloading the headers, right-click a message and choose Mark To Retrieve, Mark To Retrieve A Copy (leaves a copy on the server), or Delete, depending on what you want to do with the message. Then, choose Tools | Remote Mail | Connect to process the marked items.

Even better, try Outlook Web Access
Outlook Web Access (OWA) is an alternative to using Remote Mail to weed through messages with large attachments or corrupted messages that are preventing a user’s mail from downloading. The beauty of OWA is that you don’t need to change Outlook’s configuration at all, and it has absolutely no effect on the location of a user’s messages. The messages continue to reside in the Exchange Server mailbox and the user avoids the hassle of trying to move them between personal folders and the server.

All a user needs to do is open a Web browser and connect to the OWA URL, which typically takes the form http://<server>/exchange, where <server> is the name of the site under which OWA is hosted. Then, rather than monkey around with Remote Mail, users can preview new messages, delete those they don’t want, and move messages with large attachments to a different folder. To move the messages, they just click Folders in the Outlook Bar and drag the messages to the desired folder. The next time the user connects with Outlook, those messages won’t download because they’re not located in the Inbox. They’ll get transferred to the user’s OST file the next time he or she performs a full synchronization.