Why Exchange Online hates journal mailboxes

Why Exchange Online hates journal mailboxes

Microsoft positions Office 365 as being capable of servicing the needs of even the largest businesses and offers proof points such as the recent announcement that Microsoft and HP will work together to move 600,000 users of the U.S. Veterans Administration to the cloud. All good stuff and I’m sure that the VA will enjoy using Office 365 over the five-year contract term.

But not every customer finds the same joy in Office 365. I guess it’s impossible to please everyone. A recent discussion informed me that Exchange Online explicitly forbids the use of a cloud mailbox as a journal recipient. “So what?” you might ask, especially if you’re not one of the suspicious types that views journaling as a very good thing. Journaling, after all, captures messages as they pass through Exchange’s transport system so that they can be used for other purposes later on. For instance, proving that someone has done something that they should really not have. You get the picture.

The on-premises version of Exchange allows customers to deploy journaling on a per-database or per-user basis, the latter being an extended feature that requires the purchase of an Enterprise Client Access License (CAL) for everyone who uses it. When you enable journaling, you have to nominate a journal recipient. This is the address to which Exchange will direct journal reports (the copies of captured messages). It might be a mailbox in an Exchange or, more usually, an SMTP address is specified to have journal reports sent to an external system, perhaps one that is purpose-designed to handle the high volume of items that might be captured if journaling is used extensively.

It’s quite logical to think that a cloud-based mailbox might be a splendid journal recipient. After all, these mailboxes are on Exchange servers and managed by Microsoft in a highly-available environment. Exchange Online servers are capable of hosting very large mailboxes. All-in-all, everything seems perfect.

Not so. Microsoft prohibits the use of a cloud mailbox as a journal recipient. If you look at the Microsoft Office 365 for Enterprise Service Description (page 37), you see:

Using transport rules to copy messages to an Exchange Online mailbox for the purposes of archiving is not permitted.”

Office 365 Help also says:

“Journaling mailbox   The journaling mailbox is used for collecting journal reports. How the journaling mailbox is configured depends on your organization's policies, regulatory requirements, and legal requirements. You can specify one journaling mailbox to collect messages for all the journal rules configured in the organization, or you can use different journaling mailboxes for different journal rules or sets of journal rules. The journaling mailbox specified in a journal rule must be external to your organization.”

It all seems pretty clear. Microsoft does not want you to use a cloud mailbox as a journal recipient, even if you run a hybrid Exchange organization.

The question therefore is why this restriction exists. I can think of a few reasons:

  1. Support: Office 365 support might not be prepared to support customers if Exchange Online was able to accommodate journal mailboxes. For example, if a legal discovery action occurred that required a customer to provide thousands of items captured in a journal mailbox, how would Office 365 cope with this request? Their support model is designed around dealing with the most common customer problems rather than handling bespoke requests that could take days to resolve.
  2. Potential for service impairment: A journal mailbox often handles tremendous traffic. Imagine if you enable journaling for 1,000 users, each of which receives 50 messages daily and sends 25 responses. That means that the journal mailbox will handle a minimum of 75,000 messages daily. Now scale it up a tad to 10,000 users and you begin to realize just what a strain the mailbox comes under. An Exchange mailbox can absolutely handle the demand, but you need to prepare for the load. For example, a journal mailbox might be assigned its own database and placed on a separate volume to ensure that it never exceeds quota or available disk storage. That kind of custom mailbox doesn’t exist in the pre-canned world of cloud systems.
  3. Economics: Cloud systems offer great functionality for a low monthly cost, but only by offering limited services with limited support running on cheap hardware. The servers are stripped down to a minimum and the lowest cost disks are used. These systems deliver a perfectly acceptable service for the kind of users for which they are designed, but not for the kind of demand exerted by a journal mailbox, which just don’t fit into the economic model.

I doubt that Office 365 will change its stance on journal mailboxes. It creates far too many potential issues for little return. If you’re in the situation where you want to enable journaling, you are better off using a service that’s purpose-built for journaling. Or if you’re determined to use Exchange, think about discussing your needs with a hosting partner who’s willing to customize their service (for an additional cost). Lots of companies offer hosted Exchange – it’s their willingness to bend and flex to satisfy customers that creates their added value over a “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” service like that offered by Office 365.

And if you try to get around the rules (for instance, by forwarding journalled messages from one Office 365 tenant to another), then Microsoft can step in and stop that activity.

Using journaling, transport rules, or auto-forwarding rules to copy messages to an Exchange Online mailbox for the purposes of archiving is not permitted. Microsoft reserves the right to deny unlimited archiving in instances where a mailbox archive is not being used in a personal scenario.

Like anything else in life, you get what you pay for…

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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