Throughout my career, I've encountered quite a few users who were email hoarders...

I'm managing a 100-user environment where users previously had 100mb quotas and a basic Cyrus IMAP/Postfix solution. That led to lots of locally-stored mail and the related problems with data-retention and lost mail following PC failures.

I promptly moved towards Exchange 2010 with MailArchiva (for discovery/archiving) and have been humming along for nearly a year in this setup. Everything inbound and out is archived and retained for compliance purposes. I initially set 3GB mailbox limits per user. A handful of users needed extra space for their working sets of email and were able to justify it, so I've made some exceptions. However, I have one particularly-bad (but important) user whose Inbox is presently 22,000 items, of which 14,000 are unread. It's probably not the number of messages, but the nature of the email; lots of reports, statements and large PDF attachments. This is also a Blackberry user, so I suspect that they read mail selectively, based on subject. The user has hit the 3GB limit for the first time and is unwilling to prune the mailbox. I took care of their 3,000 deleted items to keep mail flowing, but am at a loss on how to educate users on how to organize their email. I can institute stringent policies and be a hardass, or I could sit with the user and help sort and purge mail. Either way, it doesn't address the real issue of how to help with education.

Does anyone here have any tips on how to deal with this type of situation? I'd like some example guidelines. If you're using policies in your firm, what types of policies help keep people under control?

I find that people use mail differently, but it's a challenge to force them into a particular way of organization. I may not even be the best example, but I also know what to keep and what to delete.

Update - The first battle is over, in that I've been able to keep the user under the Exchange mailbox limit by some reasonable pruning. However, I went to rebuild the user's computer and discovered a 17GB local PST file with just over 6,500 subfolders! The user had been copying (not moving) messages into an array of subfolders; sometimes with single messages being copied/filed into multiple folders. Underscores (_) and prefixes (a-z) were used to control the display order of the folders within the file! The user had also been CC'ing themselves on outbound email so as to have an Inbox record of messages to later be filed into one of the local PST's subfolders. This is an absolute misuse of the technology and is a scary way to organize company data. I am handing it over to the owners to address the situation, as it's now a company liability.

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    Have you considered telling him that he needs to pay more? Ask him to pay for the upgrade to your storage/backup system. If he as a real business need for 3GB+ storage, it sure seems like he should be able to afford the costs of fulfilling that need. BTW 3GB is kinda small these days, you can get 7GB+ from several free webmail providers.
    – Zoredache
    Aug 19, 2011 at 21:30
  • 3GB is a bit tight, but 3GB across 1000 users means 3TB of mail to back up. Always with the tradeoffs -- maybe I should just put it all in the cloud :-P
    – voretaq7
    Aug 19, 2011 at 21:40
  • Is 3GB really that tight? These users came from far less, so I thought it was a good starting point. 85% of the mailboxes are under 2GB.
    – ewwhite
    Aug 19, 2011 at 21:45
  • @voretaq7: Indeed. If we would just start using the cloud we could stop paying these contract sysadmins all this money... Aug 19, 2011 at 22:01
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    I have a similiar problem in my office. Many high-profile sales people that don't want to take the time to clean up their messes. In my case, Exch 2010 came to my rescue. I added the Online Archive option to those mailboxes that were out of control and moved their 365+day old mail to an online archive. While it doesn't "cleanup" the server, it certainly improves performance as those messages are now housed on a seperate much slower server (on purpose). Just food for thought.
    – MikeAWood
    Aug 20, 2011 at 1:10

8 Answers 8


This may be a pure management issue, but in my experience this kind of decision devolves to the sysadmin staff to justify and enforce all too often. Because of this, it is my job as the sysadmin to convince management that there is a problem here and it should be taken seriously, and to posit management mechanisms that may be useful.

One of my old employers had a GroupWise system, which at the time didn't have any quota mechanisms in it (this was a while ago, GW has had it for some time now). So ultimately we resorted to a peer-pressure method. Each month we'd print off a report of the $X largest mail-boxes in each department and send the reports off to the office-managers. Within two months the top-5 list of largest mailboxes had a much smaller average size.

Some methods I've found useful for convincing management to pay attention to this issue:

Define the cost of mail storage

If you're getting the "but Google does it" pushback, start building spread-sheets that show how much mail costs. Managers understand cost. You, or the people you buy things through, have the costs for your server hardware, software, AV software, and other related costs. From this you can assign a dollars-per-MB number for mail storage. This allows you to give a decently good dollar value for a 3GB mailbox versus a 200MB mailbox.

This, by the way, is why you learned algebra back in school.

This can go one of three ways:

  1. They increase their mail-storage spend. They see the numbers, realized they're under-investing, and throw money at it to get to where you "should" be.
  2. They agree to provide downward pressure on mail growth in order to better control this cost.
  3. They say %*&!@ it! To the cloud!

Produce mail system upgrade costs

If the above is beyond your mad spreadsheeting skills, producing upgrade plans for keeping ahead of your storage consumption curve is a good way to at least get the conversation started. When they see bigbigmoney for upgrades, they'll ask why. And then you'll tell them. When they ask how they can avoid this cost, mention providing downward pressure on the big mail users.

I've done both of the above to justify simple storage purchases. The same techniques work for email, where you've got an entire application stack sitting on top of your storage/backup infrastructures. Dollars (or currency-of-choice) per unit is a great method of highlighting costs and the perils of overindulgence. Sometimes it can cause very significant strategic changes (see also, to the cloud!). Sometimes it can jar loose resources.

Politically speaking, it's a good idea to provide some suggestions for how to provide downward pressure for email consumption. But that's all they are, suggestions to the management who has to actually implement them or convince other managers to do so.


Our solution was a pit painful. One of our partner organizations (k12 education) was hit by discovery request in a lawsuit (FOIA). The costs to sort through the tons of email and redact the secret bits was huge (~$100k) because of how much email was saved that may have match the request. Our lawyers suggested, and our Superintendent put into place a strict retention policy so we could limit the costs of a request for us in the future.

By default all mail is purged after 45 days. Anything that must be saved for legal reasons, must be moved to a managed folder. There are a couple different managed folders with various retention policies applied.

Anyway, my point is, this should be a business decision, not IT complaining about storage. Do your best to make it clear the real costs, and point out the potential costs of having a huge mailbox. Then the executive officer to make a decision based on costs.

An arbitrary assigned quota will not make sense to a user.

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    +1 for brining in discovery expense. I had a small Customer spend upwards of $10K on a single discovery incident and it was tiny in scope. I can only imagine how painful and expensive it would've been if it had been larger in scope. Aug 19, 2011 at 21:45

I believe that it's not your problem. To my mind it's some manager's problem. I don't think you need to be a hardass, but it sounds like somebody needs to be.

The user's unfettered email storage is costing the company money. The user wouldn't be allowed to hoard trash in their office-- why should hoarding trash on the email server be any different?

IT has to set limits on data storage because of performance and backup concerns. These are real, physical, tangible concerns. Hopefully your corporate policies on IT security, disaster recovery, email retention, acceptable use, etc, give these kinds of concerns some "teeth".

If it absolutely falls to you to "help" the user I'd consider, at a minimum, setting up Outlook rules to file incoming messages into "2010", "2011", "2012", etc folders based on date received. Then the user (or you) can prune old emails a year at a time. That'll also keep the Inbox folder smaller.

I've been a contractor for nearly all of my "IT life", so I've never had to fight the political battles around something like this. If I had a "C-level" user (or in a small business the owner or family of the owner) who was problematic like this I'd probably end up capitulating rather than fighting. I'd try to make a business case, at least, but I'd probably also end up giving up, and I'd definitely want that business case in writing for "CYA" purposes if their hoarding ends up creating operational difficulties.

  • This is absolutely a managerial issue. It may be due to the nature of my industry, but this is a pretty flat organization. The user, however, is a high-profile user and does not have a manager. Your points regarding backup performance and that space is finite, are absolutely valid.
    – ewwhite
    Aug 19, 2011 at 21:15
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    The usual stop is the CEO's office then -- I've actually had the conversation with my CEO who was using 12G of mail storage space. When I explained how long that took to back up and the practical impact on our systems he was happy to migrate some stuff off the server, and to talk to our other high-volume users about their disk use as well.
    – voretaq7
    Aug 19, 2011 at 21:23
  • No user is going to take seriously arguments about "finite space" when he can look up hard drive prices online. Even someone with minimum wage is better off disregarding email archiving if their yearly usage is less than 200GB and they would spend 1h per year (~18 seconds per workday) deleting email.
    – jva
    Aug 20, 2011 at 11:29
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    @jva: The business-case doesn't need to be made to the user, just to management. I wouldn't expect the average user to understand that consumer hard disk drive prices have nothing to do with the costs associated with enterprise storage, backup, DR, and compliance. Aug 20, 2011 at 12:43

We've had the same problem, it's currently under control, but I'm sure it will come back.

First of all, it's rarely the number of messages that's an issue - and it's not in your case, 22,000 is nothing, my mailbox runs to over 200,000 message - it's the &^%$# attachments.

I think attachments are a terrible way to store files, but lots of people like it because it preservers some meta-data: date sent or received and who a file was sent to or came from). Also, people are just lazy - it takes time to save and delete attachments.

In our case, education was the key: we made sure that people who "needed" a larger quota understood the hidden costs (backup time and storage needs, recovery time, the nightmare if there were a legal issue, etc.)

Then we made sure they understood that the biggest issue was attachments (this is why I kept so many emails online - I rigorously got rid of my attachments, so I could point to my own mailbox and say "I have 20 times as much mail as you, but my mailbox is less than 1/4 the size") and gave them some tools to help them deal with attachments.

The tools we used were mostly more training - e.g. how to sort messages by size, how to save attachments, how to save multiple attachments at once, how to also save an email to a file if they wanted the "meta-data," how to delete attachments (and the need to SAVE changes after deleting them), help with setting up directory structures, and so on.

In exactly two cases (and one of them was me), we were able to use 3rd party tools to help. There are a bunch of tools that will save messages and/or files, we use EZDetach and MessageSave, they're ok, but not really user-friendly enough for a lot of people (to be fair, none of the products I looked at for this function were easy enough for general users). For the one user, they learned to use the software and liked the idea of once a month running it to extract and delete all their attachments at once. For everyone else we tried to get to use it, they found it too complicated, so we stuck with basic Outlook training.

In our case, it worked because the President was one of the big users, and a senior manager was the the one who liked EZDetach. They gave us enough momentum to be able to tell people "nope, no one gets more email quota, if these techniques work for the bigwigs, they'll work for you!"

  • What was the cost comparison between just buying more hardware and lost productivity because of all the training?
    – jva
    Aug 20, 2011 at 11:36
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    @jva - Hardware does not install, manage, back-up or maintain itself: What is the cost of IT handling those tasks when the solution is "Just throw hardware at it and let the users have whatever they want"? What are the costs when that mentality bleeds over to software too?
    – voretaq7
    Aug 20, 2011 at 19:10
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    @jva - The space is available, but it's the policy that matters here. Throwing hardware at it has licensing and other costs associated. Buy-in at the top levels of the organization is also handy...
    – ewwhite
    Aug 20, 2011 at 21:16

It sounds you have a formal policy that the employees are aware of: There is a 3GB storage limit without valid reasons for a special-case exemption. "I don't read my mail" is not (IMHO) a valid reason.
The user's manager needs to be informed that the user is refusing to comply with company-wide IT policy, and you need to be prepared to make a business case to the C-Level offices as to why the policy makes sense. (In these days where everyone has a gmail account the real justifier is going to be cost).
If this person really needs their extra space they should be able to give you written justification for a quota bump.

Beyond that, you should send a CYA Memo (on paper, keep a copy) to the user(s) who are near the 3GB threshold and their manager(s) detailing the fact that the user will stop getting mail if they do not reduce their utilization or submit a valid reason they need more space. You already went out of your way once to help this person, so at this point after a written notice it becomes their responsibility to take action (clean up or beg a quota increase), otherwise the mail bounces become their fault.
You want to do everything you can to avoid a face full when the feces hits the fan because this person's mail is bouncing.

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    Zow. I'd pretty much do anything to avoid a face full of feces. What an image... >smile< Aug 19, 2011 at 21:25
  • It's Exchange, so I've set a 200mb buffer between the first alert at 3GB and the step where mail is refused. Most people see that they bump the limit and delete mail on their own. Others may ask "what should I do?", and I'll help them get to a more sane level.
    – ewwhite
    Aug 19, 2011 at 21:29
  • @ewwhite and then there are those users who pitch a fit, stamp their feet, get a written warning from the admin team, continue to whine, and have their mail bounce until they learn a lesson. (OK, maybe it's a bit BOFH-ish, but that's why you write the CYA memo if they stay in the buffer zone too long). Remember that blinking (without a good reason) sets a dangerous precedent: Either you have to change policy for everyone or lay the enforcement smackdown on this user...
    – voretaq7
    Aug 19, 2011 at 21:35

As you know, this is really a managerial problem, not a technical one.

I would talk with this user's manager. Explain the situation. Explain that disk space is a finite resource. Explain that he or she really needs to talk with this employee and inform them that they need to dedicate more time to email management, archiving, and deletion. If the manager is not willing to do that, inform him that he will need to go to [insert big C-level exec here] and explain why his employee is so important that they can't be bothered to manage their mail like everyone else is, and that the [C-level exec] will need to approve the purchase of additional disk and backup space to support this user's needs.


People that can't organize their mails aren't searching for mails. They don't even miss them. I assume that the 22,000 mails in the inbox are not from this year. So I would move the mails in separate subfolders for every year. If even that is too much for a folder then add a subfolder for every month.

This is how I organize my "sent" folder as I don't care what I sent. If I want to look for a particular answer to a inbox-mail, then I can simply drill down to that date. I only organize my incoming mails.

The thing about emails and documents is that it is a bad idea to put them in a hierarchical structure on separate media. In a perfect world one would put both of them in "boxes", label and tag them and link between boxes and box-content. In those boxes one should also put notes, phone notes, phone calls, faxes, ...


There are myriad valid cases where retaining all (or, at least, most) email is vital - most jobs I've had have had that be the case: all emails relating to different customers, what was done when, status reports, etc.

And I bet your users are going to say something like "but Google gives me 7GB..." if you tell them there is a hard limit at 3G.

From personal, anecdotal, experience - the best setup I ever had was my first college: in 1999, we were given network quotas that were to house our email, personal files, assignments, and personal web pages. It was entirely up to each user what percentage was used for what.

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