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Why admins should set up Outlook 2013 search folders

Users who receive lots of email should consider using search folders, but admins need to understand all the pros and cons before building them.

In just about any organization, there are users who receive mind-boggling amounts of email. Introducing those users to search folders can help them work more efficiently.

A search folder is a little different from typical Outlook folders because messages do not actually reside in search folders. Instead, these folders provide a filtered view of a user's messages.

Outlook 2013 contains built-in templates to create search folders for unread messages, messages flagged for follow-up or messages with attachments. Outlook 2013 can also create search folders based on things like specific words in a message or messages received from specific people.

End users can create search folders without administrative intervention by simply selecting Outlook's Folder tab, clicking the New Search Folder icon and then choosing the search folder type they want to create.

Search folder creation is a user-level function, so there is no easy way for an administrator to create default search folders and apply them to each user's mailbox. But this doesn't mean administrators should sit by while end users create search folders at will.

Search folders are handy, but they can be resource-intensive and are especially problematic if end users create large numbers of search folders or receive large amounts of mail. It's a good idea for administrators to take measures and make sure search folder use does not cause performance problems.

Microsoft Exchange and Outlook differentiate between online and offline search folders. An online search folder is active on the Exchange Server; as new messages arrive in a user's inbox, the search folder actively checks those messages to see if they meet the search criteria. Offline folders can also be active, but they do not consume resources on the Exchange Server. Instead, Outlook processes offline search folders when it's operating in cached mode.

There's a timer attached to both online and offline search folders that keeps track of how many days it's been since the folder was last accessed. When the timer reaches a predetermined number of days, the search folder goes dormant. Dormant search folders retain cached content, but do not actively check new email messages. When a user clicks on a dormant search folder, the search folder is automatically brought back into an active state.

Group Policy settings control the behavior of Outlook 2013 search folders. Because no Outlook 2013-related Group Policy settings exist in Windows by default, you will have to download and install the Office 2013 administrative templates.

There are three Group Policy settings related to search folders, all of which are located at User Configuration\Policies\Administrative Templates\Microsoft Outlook 2013\Search Folders.

The first Group Policy setting is Keep Search Folders in Exchange Online. This setting controls the threshold value for the timer that tracks when online search folders were last used. You can use this setting to specify the number of days of inactivity before an online folder is placed into a dormant state.

The second Group Policy setting is Keep Search Folders Offline. This option actually existed for Outlook 2010 and sets the threshold value for offline search folders. The value you specify for this policy setting represents the number of days an offline search folder can be ignored before it will go dormant.

It's worth noting that the concept of putting search folders into a dormant state existed in Outlook 2010. Back then, it was typical to use a threshold value of 30 days. Today, more organizations use virtualized Exchange Server deployments and run Outlook 2013 on virtual desktops. It's important to make efficient use of hardware resources in virtualized environments since the underlying hardware is shared among multiple virtual systems. I'd recommend setting the threshold values to no more than 14 days.

The last Group Policy setting is Maximum Number of Online Search Folders per Mailbox, which limits the total number of online search folders a user can create. This setting is important for preventing excessive resource consumption on your Exchange mailbox server. Microsoft doesn't seem to provide recommendations for using this setting, but I'd recommend limiting the maximum number of online search folders per mailbox to ten or fewer.

Search folders can be helpful to users since they can be used to automatically organize vast quantities of email. Even so, limits must be set on usage to prevent the search folders from consuming excessive system resources.

About the author:
Brien Posey is a ten-time Microsoft MVP with two decades of IT experience. Before becoming a freelance technical writer, Brien worked as a chief information officer at a national chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the nation's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox.

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