Utility Spotlight: Safely Back up PST Files

The free Microsoft Personal Folders Backup tool can help you make regular backups of your users’ PST files.

Lance Whitney

Backing up Microsoft Outlook PST files is time-consuming, but essential. If your organization uses Outlook, you’ll have to do this at some point. Unless you store your users’ PST files directly on a server, they’re most likely kept on each individual computer where they can be lost or corrupted for a variety of reasons. To back up those all-important e-mail archive folders, Microsoft offers the free Personal Folders Backup utility.

Personal Folders Backup is an oldie, but always a goody. This tool can back up an entire PST file at regular intervals as long as there’s space available on the backup location. By default, it’s only fully compatible with Outlook 2002, 2003 and 2007. A brief registry hack will make it work with Outlook 2010 so it will prompt you to back up your PST.

Let’s first try it out on a single computer running Outlook. Download the Personal Folders Backup tool from the Microsoft Download Center and install the pfbackup.exe file.

If you’re using Outlook 2002, 2003 or 2007, you can open Outlook after the tool has finished installing. If you’re using Outlook 2010, you’ll need to read the Microsoft support document, “How to enable Personal Folders Backup add-in to work with Outlook 2010,” or just follow these steps:

  1. Open the Registry Editor (regedit.exe) as an administrator.
  2. Navigate to the following subkey:
    HKEY_CURRENT_USER\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Office\Outlook\Addins\Microsoft.Outlook Backup.1.
  3. Click on the Edit menu, choose New and select DWORD Value or DWORD (32-bit) Value.
  4. Rename the value to RequireShutdownNotification.
  5. Double-click the new value name and change the value data to 1. Click OK.
  6. Close the Registry Editor and open Outlook 2010.

After you open Outlook, you’ll need to look for the new Backup command. In Outlook 2002, 2003 and 2007, click on the File menu and select Backup. In Outlook 2010, you’ll need to click on the Add-Ins option at the top to display the Add-Ins Ribbon. Click the Backup command.

You should see the Outlook Personal Folders Backup tool appear (see Figure 1). Click the Options button. In the Backup Options window, you can set a reminder to have Outlook alert you to run a backup. You can set the duration for anywhere from one to 999 days, but the default of seven days will probably work fine in most cases.

Personal Folders Backup lets you set the reminder duration.

Figure 1 Personal Folders Backup lets you set the reminder duration.

You’ll see the names of your PST file or files in the Backup Options window (see Figure 2). Most of your users may have just a single file for their corporate accounts. Some may have two PSTs—one for newer mail and an archived file for older mail. If that’s the case, you can back up both files.

You can select which PST files you want to back up.

Figure 2 You can select which PST files you want to back up.

Finally, you’ll need to set the storage location for the backups. This can be a thorny issue at many organizations, as users’ PST files can often grow to consume several gigabytes. Finding a place to house all those hefty backups can be problematic.

Depending on the size of your organization and the amount of free space on your servers, you might want to set up the backup locations on a network share. This could be the user’s personal network share. Another option is to have your users back up to secure USB drives or other portable media. You might even choose to store desktop user backups on a server and laptop backups on a portable device. Either way, carefully consider your backup storage plans to make sure they suit your needs.

Type in or browse to the location you’ve chosen for the backups. Click OK after you’ve made your selections to close the Backup Options window. You’ll want to test the backup by clicking the Save Backup command. Outlook will tell you it needs to exit before it can back up your personal folders (see Figure 3).

You’ll need to close Outlook before committing to a storage location for your backups.

Figure 3 You’ll need to close Outlook before committing to a storage location for your backups.

The next step is to exit Outlook. You should see a standard Windows File Copy dialog box showing that the PST is being copied to the backup location (see Figure 4).

Upon exit, Personal Folders Backup will copy your selected PST files.

Figure 4 Upon exit, Personal Folders Backup will copy your selected PST files.

Once the file is copied, you can check the backup location to ensure the PST was indeed fully copied. You can also open Outlook and run the Backup tool again. This time, click on Open Backup. Choose the backed-up PST file. It will then add the backup as a separate data file to Outlook, which you can browse to confirm that all of the correct folders and messages were backed up.

You can always open the backup, whether to retrieve an individual e-mail that’s been lost or deleted or to recover the entire folder in case the main PST is lost or corrupted. You can also manually back up the PST at any time. Even if you do this, you’ll still receive a reminder to back it up based on the number of days you selected in the Backup Options window.

After you’ve successfully tested the Personal Folders Backup tool on a single PC, it’s time to roll it out to your users. You can bundle the pfbackup.exe file and the Registry hack for Outlook 2010 in an automated script and install it via a login script or other deployment method. Of course, you’ll also have to explain to your users how to run the tool once it’s installed.

Setting up the tool, finding the backup space, and getting your users to back up their PSTs could require a fair amount of time and effort. But when you think about how much vital information your users are storing in Outlook these days, you need to make sure that information is backed up on a regular basis.

Lance Whitney

Lance Whitney is a writer, IT consultant and software trainer. He’s spent countless hours tweaking Windows workstations and servers. Originally a journalist, he took a blind leap into the IT world in the early ’90s.