My email went belly up the other weekend, despite the fact that yours truly has been using the Internet since the late 1980s and had taken solid precautions against problems occurring.
Those precautions include using an email ISP that has backup servers located at multiple sites, and a service level agreement approaching 99.98 percent.
The precautions also include the use of multiple ISPs for Internet access - along with a cable modem connection with dialup backup - to ensure ready access to POP-3 my messages down from my email ISP. We also use an Internet backup service to back all data from the server to the backup company's servers, in case of a serious IT hardware failure. What caught me out was a long weekend, a particularly nasty spam attack on a mailing list I subscribe to, and the fact that most Windows applications choose the wee small hours to back up their data.
At 4 a.m. on the first day back at work, my server decided to back up its data to the Internet, start a routine maintenance cycle and also start POP-3 sucking my email down from my email ISP - all at the same time. The result was predictable - big red switch time on the server.
By the time I strolled into the office at 9 a.m., the server had been locked up for approaching five hours. After more than a little while figuring out what had happened, I realized my downloaded email scratchpad had disappeared. I contacted both my email ISP and my local ISP - guess what? No backups, as is standard in the Internet industry.
Basically, if you download your email and your email software flags to the server that the download was successful, the email on the server is deleted and there is little chance of resurrecting it, unless your ISP is one of those rare band that supports the old restore facility.
No worries, I thought - I'll hop onto my online backup service and haul down the necessary mailbox files. Only they weren't there. Because of the way Outlook and Outlook Express operate, none of the online backup services automatically store users' email files, despite the fact that most users employ a wizard application to set this up.
Never mind, I thought - the data has to be on the server somewhere. Let's reboot into DOS and retrieve it. Several hours later, it became apparent that the DBX file (yes, I do use MS-Outlook) had overwritten.
Or had it? Microsoft tech support was as much use on such matters as a chocolate teapot, I know you'll be surprised to hear. What Microsoft wasn't able to tell me, but I figured out myself, is that Outlook (and Outlook Express) reconfigures itself to create a second set of DBX files in the event of a system crash - a fail-safe, if you will. This means that, buried in your Outlook system files, is the original DBX email file right up to the point where the email software crashed.
This means that, if Microsoft told its customers how the software performed, it is an easily recoverable situation - from DOS, that is. So how can you protect your email from disappearing and, perhaps more importantly, how can you recover from a bad system crash without having to consult a DOS junkie to restore your files?
ABF software, Inc. (www.abfsoftware.com) has a neat utility called Outlook Express Backup, which is suitable for Windows users. The package costs $29.95 and backs up, as well as restores, email messages and folders, address book, settings, mail and news accounts, message rules, blocked senders lists, and even signatures. Interestingly, the software also allows users to move their mail folders between computers - such as an office desktop and a home notebook - as many times as required. The software, which is available for free trial download on the company's web site, has a very large help manual. It succeeds, where Microsoft fails.
For larger users, such as company networks, you need EmailXtender Archive from OTG Software, Inc. (www.otg.com), which is sold by Optomedia (www.optomedia.co.uk) in the U.K. and Ireland. The package - which includes 12 months support - copes with up to 2,000 users of MS-Exchange and Lotus Notes, backing up all the data without the five-figure costs of the competition.
The software works quite simply: after replicating the email server onto an archive server, it then deletes attachments on the main email server, replacing them with links to the archive server's database. OTG claims this cuts down the data storage requirements on the email server by between 60 and 80 percent, allowing the email server to operate more efficiently and with far less chances of a system crash occurring. The additional upside of the software is that it can also be programmed to delete email of a certain age from the main email server, whilst still allowing access to the old messages using the archive server.
So what did I learn from my email disaster - which took the best part of a day to recover from? I learned that, even with the best backup and disaster recovery systems in place, there are still situations where you will experience a data loss. I also learned that IT support services from the likes of Microsoft are of little help in difficult situations. What you really need is a troubleshooting service.
Finally, I learned of the need for customized installation of software - installing using the 'standard' routine may be quick and easy, but it can also leave your flanks exposed, especially when it comes to IT security software. I've been using PCs for getting on for two decades now. If I get caught out, you bet your bottom dollar that you can too.
You have been warned.