Public Folders have been available in Office 365 for a while now (10 months or so). Still, most information I read is somewhat out-dated, or lacking in actual hands-on knowledge. There is a lot of “it should”, “it will”, “it might”, “it is supposedly”… you get the idea.
Well, I have been using them for a little while now – and here is what I’ve found.
The end-user usage in Outlook is pretty much the same for Public Folders in Office 365 – note, I said usage rather than experience. More on that later.
Public Folders can be accessed through OWA.
The migration of Public Folders from our on-premise Exchange 2007 server went about as well as I could have hoped.
The Less Good
Prior to moving to Office 365, I expected some things (especially
including Public Folder access) to be a bit slower. Public Folders are now always retrieved over the internet rather than the on-prem server. I get that. But, Public Folder access via Outlook is slow. Like, really slow. It is slow to load the tree, slow to load a folder, slow to load a single message.
Theoretically, you can add most-used folders to you favorites and have them cached on your local machine. This isn’t really practical for us (partially because of how our PFs are structured). Further, most KB articles I have read regarding Public Folder issues recommend against this. It degrades Outlook performance overall, and can eat up a lot of hard drive space.
In OWA, you must add specific Public Folders to your list of favorites in order to access it. What does this mean? Well, you can’t simply browse the PF tree as you could previously (or as you would in Outlook). It isn’t nearly as seamless as it should be (used to be) – and is not consistent with Outlook. At first glance, you wouldn’t even know that you could access Public Folders at all in OWA.
Additionally, you can only view mail PFs. Have a calendar in your Public Folder? Yea, we do. Well, we can’t access it via OWA. Have a contacts list in your Public Folder? Yea, we do. Well, we can’t access it via OWA either.
The whole experience just feels crippled.
With on-premise PFs, administrators could manage a Public Folder’s permissions via Outlook. From everything I have read, you really shouldn’t be doing that with Office 365. Instead, you should login to the portal, and manage Public Folder permissions through EAC. No, it isn’t a huge deal – I just get disgusted with ‘Outlook is better to browse Public Folders, but use the portal for permissions, but don’t bother with OWA for Public Folder access’. You get the point.
One of my goals after the migration was to add a better way for users to search PFs. I had done some reading about using SharePoint to crawl and index PFs – which would then allow users to search (via SharePoint). Perhaps not a seamless as I would hope for, but an acceptable solution nevertheless.
So, I attempted to do this in Office 365. After hitting a roadblock, I submitted a support request. It took somewhere around 4 weeks before I was told “you can’t crawl/index Exchange 2013 Public Folders with SharePoint”. What?! So, your most current version of SharePoint is incompatible with your most current version of Exchange. Marvelous. Oh, and it only took you 4 weeks to tell me this? Fantastic.
Public Folder Data Management
The backend of Public Folders is quite different than in previous versions of Exchange. The short of it – Public Folders used to have their own database, but now they utilize regular mailboxes.
Keep in mind that in Office 365, mailboxes have a size limit of 25GB. So, when migrating PFs, multiple mailboxes are created for PF storage as needed.
In the migration procedure that I followed, there was something written to the effect of “after the initial migration, Public Folder mailboxes are managed by Microsoft”. Basically, you had to create the initial mailboxes to fit your data, but we’ll handle creating new mailboxes / moving public folders afterwards.
That sounds great – but is a bit scary. Based on my interactions with Office 365 personnel, I am justifiably worried about how this will play out.
As many issues as I see in Public Folders, my only hope is that they will get better. Other than moving back to on-prem, I don’t know of any better options that wouldn’t cause horrible backlash from employees in our office (mostly the boss).
If you actively use Public Folders, there is likely no better alternative (other than to possibly keep your on-prem server). If you don’t use Public Folders, then I (and probably every other IT person) would warn against it. Avoid it at all costs, and save yourself the frustration.