Imagine that you’ve just come into the office, powered on your laptop, connected to the network, and are almost finished reading through your morning e-mail. You’re about to delete the last of the “secret admirer” spam from your inbox when your building suddenly loses power—everything goes dark. Luckily, your laptop’s internal battery allows you to shut down safely, and you wait patiently for the power to return. But when the lights come back on, you’re told that a serious problem has occurred with the Exchange 5.5 server, and everyone has lost all their e-mail for the past week. Every meeting notice, appointment, message, and file sent or received is gone without a trace.

When this exact disaster happened to my friend and fellow IT pro John Wolf, he was lucky enough not to have synchronized since the failure and was able to recover some of the lost mail. Here’s how he did it.

When it rains, it pours
When John told me about his dilemma, my first response was, “What about the backups? Your IT department keeps backups, don’t they? Why couldn’t they restore the e-mail from the backups?” John then relayed a story that made me cringe. Even though my friend’s IT department had taken practical and adequate disaster prevention and recovery steps, they still suffered a significant system failure.

All critical servers, including the Exchange box, were connected to UPS devices. This provided adequate time to shut down in case of a prolonged power outage. Full tape backups were made on a weekly basis, with incremental backups being made nightly. These steps should have been adequate to protect the servers from all but the most unusual catastrophe. But wouldn’t you know, that’s just what happened.

First of all, the UPS failed and my friend’s IT department was not able to shut down Exchange in time. This corrupted the master database, preventing Exchange from coming back up. After several attempts to repair the damage with Microsoft’s Exchange database recovery tools and multiple calls to Microsoft, it was determined that the tape backups were the only hope. Let the restoration begin, right? Wrong.

The power outage and system failure had occurred on Friday morning, and the last full backup had been made the preceding Sunday. Incremental backups had been made each day during the week, but they would only work if the full backup from the preceding Sunday could be restored. Things were about to go from bad to worse.

The IT department attempted to restore the 37-GB full backup, but only 17 GB had been recovered when the backup failed with a read error on the tape. The score so far: Disaster 3, Techs 0.

All John’s IT department could do was use the full backup from two weeks before the failure and use that week’s incremental backups. Fortunately, this worked, and e-mail service was restored. Unfortunately, as I mentioned at the beginning of this saga, every e-mail, meeting notice, and appointment that had traveled into or out of Outlook during the past week was gone. Or was it?

Offline folders and synchronization save the day
While little could be done for data that was stored on the Exchange server, those users who took advantage of Outlook’s Offline folders had a decent chance of recovering some of the lost data. Offline folders allow you to add, delete, and modify the contents of an Outlook folder when you are not connected to an Exchange server. The changes are then transferred to the server the next time you connect via a process called synchronization.

During synchronization, Outlook copies the changes made in the server folder to the offline folder and vice versa, making the offline folder identical to the server’s. Items deleted from either the offline folder or the corresponding server folder are deleted from both. Synchronization can be configured to take place automatically in the background while you work or when you close Outlook after an online session. You can also manually synchronize the folders.

Typically, laptop users are the only people who use offline folders. Luckily, John is a laptop user who makes good use of offline folders, and that gave him an idea. When the power outage first occurred, he had been able to shut down his laptop normally. This meant that he had synchronized all his offline Outlook folders the day of the outage. If he could get to his offline folders, all the previous week’s e-mail would be there. So how did he do it?

Three easy steps
1. Don’t synchronize
First, John had to make sure he did not synchronize his offline folders. The Exchange server was missing a week’s worth of data that was stored in the offline folders, and during synchronization, Outlook would delete this data from the offline folders. Unfortunately, John had already connected to the damaged Exchange server, and, if he closed Outlook, it would try to synchronize. To prevent this from happening, John went to the Mail Services tab of the Options dialog box by clicking Tools | Options and then choosing the Mail Services tab.

Figure A

John made sure that none of the synchronization boxes were checked, as shown in Figure A.

2. Work offline
John’s next step was to start Outlook in offline mode. To do this, he needed to make sure that Outlook would prompt to choose the connection state when started. This setting can be found in the Microsoft Exchange Server properties box, shown in Figure B. John opened this box by clicking Tools | Services, choosing Microsoft Exchange Server, and clicking the Properties button.

Figure B

He then chose the Manually Control Connection State option. With these two steps complete, it was time for the moment of truth. John shut down Outlook. To his relief, it did not synchronize. He restarted, choosing Work Offline, and lo and behold, his e-mail from the previous week was there.

3. Move your lost mail to a safe location
After taking a few moments to revel in his cleverness, John got to the task of protecting his recovered mail. He quickly created a new subfolder called Saved Mail, shown in Figure C. Because this was a new folder created while working offline, the next time he connected to the Exchange server, the folder and all its contents would be copied to the server.

Figure C

John then went through all of his existing folders and copied any mail from the past week into the Saved Mail folder. He was careful to check his Inbox, Sent Items, and Inbox subfolders. In the end, he was able to recover over 100 messages. With his mail safely stored in his new folder, John repeated Step 2, this time enabling the Automatically Detect Connect State option. When Outlook started and connected to the server, the Saved Mail folder and all its contents were still there. John then copied the recovered messages from the Saved Mail folder back to their original folders. Now he could repeat Step 1, this time reenabling synchronization upon exit. When John shut down and restarted, all his recovered e-mails were in their proper folders. John could now delete the Saved Mail folder and go back to work as if nothing had happened.

A case for using offline folders on desktops
The above scenario worked for John because he was using offline folders and had not synchronized after the server crash. For those individuals who had already synchronized or who did not use offline folders, John’s method would not work. This brings up an interesting debate: Who should use offline folders?

In many network environments, only laptop users work with offline folders, since they often use Outlook when not connected to the network. Desktops, on the other hand, are almost always connected to the network when in use and usually don’t need offline folders. However, the above scenario suggests that desktop users could benefit from using offline folders. What do you think? Post a comment to this article and join the discussion.