The Public Folder Problem – and How to Solve It (Part 1)

In 1996 Microsoft introduced Exchange Public Folders as a replacement for social aliases. The benefits of public folders were manifold, as noted by Tony Redmond: Public folders would support “social discussions, restaurant reviews, product status reporting, classified ads, and sales/contact tracking”. Public folders also promised the silver bullet of productivity: less e-mail in your inbox!

But all good things must come to an end. In the fall of 2014, Microsoft announced that public folders had been officially shut down internally at the Microsoft organization, claiming that tools like SharePoint have replaced much of the functionality that public folders were known for providing. (Of course, when they fulfilled that functionality, they created a whole new set of challenges, but that’s a topic for another blog post.)

For many of our clients, this surfaces a major problem: How do we migrate or dispose of tens of thousands of public folders, containing multiple terabytes of data? For organizations that aren't using public folders, imagine that upgrading to Exchange 2013 or Office 365 meant that you had to migrate your network drives to SharePoint or OneDrive as well.

Okay, that’s the problem. How do you fix it? I’m going to provide you a strategy for dealing with The Public Folder Problem. There are two major phases, and in this post I’ll discuss Phase 1:

  1. Conduct a content analysis to understand how public folders are being used in your organization today and the nature of the content being stored in them.
  2. Then you execute upon the findings of that assessment in one of three ways: via policy-based disposition, decision-based disposition, or staging for migration.

What kind of information do you need to gather about the current state of your public folder environment to be able to make intelligent decisions about migrating or disposing of the content in those folders? The high-level metadata reports from Exchange will give you information on numbers of public folders, total storage consumption, etc. But you need to perform a technical assessment of the public folder environment and the content it contains to direct your efforts. Then you’ll have to do some real (i.e. “human”) work.

Let's talk about the technical assessment first.

In addition to the basic reporting provided by Exchange, you should consider using an analysis tool like Proofpoint to run on the public folder server. This will provide additional data in a simple UI to drive your decision-making around migration or disposition. Data provided include:

  • Overview of all public folders (How many public folders, sub folders, etc)
  • Report of folder ownership
  • Total count of items in each/all public folders
  • Last accessed time (content last modified) of each/all public folders

The resultant data can provide a good baseline of the current state. But there is still a lot of human work we need to do – and questions to answer concerning each/all public folders. These questions include the following:

Who is the business owner of the content? Is the content orphaned? Hopefully, your public folders have clear owners and a tool can provide a useful list for you. This would be the case if the folders were created by the business users or if there is a folder owner defined by Active Directory. In many organizations, the public folders have been set up by system administrators, and there is not a clear one-to-one connection between public folders and a specific line of business. In this case, you will need to interview key business units about their use of public folders to try to ensure that core business processes aren't being impacted by your disposition of the folders’ contents. If the public folder is orphaned, you can run analytics to see when the content was last accessed and consider archiving the folder if the folder appears to be dormant.

What is the complexity of the public folder? I.e. How many public folders are simple shared folders? How many are mail-enabled folders? How many are public folder applications? Even if you aren't interested in doing disposition, you need to know whether you are dealing with simple shared folders that can be migrated to SharePoint, or if you will need to migrate an application. If you are going to clean up the content before migrating, you'll be able to send the most content in simple folders through a relatively straightforward policy disposition (see below), whereas most applications will need to go through a decision-based disposition.

What is the nature of the content in these public folders? Is this information potentially subject to legal hold or records management? You willwant to collect the most current records schedule and, if possible, a list of current legal holds. If your organization does legal hold by collection, you may not need to be as worried about legal holds, since they will have copied the content and placed it in a separate legal holds environment. But in either case, your Legal and Records Management functions will need to be involved if you are going to build a disposition process.

Okay, that should be enough to keep you pretty busy for now. In my next post, I'll discuss Phase 2 of the strategy for dealing with The Public Folder Problem: the necessary steps to begin disposing of public folder content or staging it for migration.

Rich Medina
Lane Severson
I’m a Practice Leader, managing relationships with Doculabs’ West Coast clients to improve information management and security.