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Outlook: Multiple Users Single Account?
June 3, 2007 12:30 AM   Subscribe

Is there a way to set up MS Outlook (XP) so that multiple users can access a single account from their separate computers while retaining all of the files on a primary computer?

Basically, I'm the occasional IT department for a very small company and this is something like a feature request. There are two people with networked laptops, and one main desktop that is set up to retain all the email from this one account.

They want to use their laptops to read and send email from this account, and they want it to be just like they were reading and sending it from the desktop computer. Complete with archiving and deleting.

I am open to any suggestion that solves the problem, including those that don't involve Outlook. Here are some ideas I've had, but I have serious doubts about each of them.

  • Setting the folder where the Outlook database lives as Shared, then pointing each laptop's Outlook installation to this same file. I have no idea if this will work. Ideally, they want to be able to use the email account at the same time, and I'm not sure this will allow that.

  • Using Thunderbird. I don't know if it will help, but I think it would be cool to move them to more open-source applications.

  • Setting up Remote Desktop or VNC, so they just log on through the LAN and use the desktop like they were sitting in front of it. This one is probably stretching it. Also, can anyone else use the computer while someone else is remotely logged in?

  • That's all the ideas I have. I imagine this is somewhat of a common enough problem so that someone has already solved this problem. That's what I keep telling them anyway.
    posted by philomathoholic to Computers & Internet (8 answers total)
    You have the real problem of sharing -- what if both try to access the mail store file at the same time? It gets ugly.

    Remember that Microsoft apps aren't built to be used in a non-standard way, such as two Outlook installs using one mail file. Things go wrong real quick if you start to do that. You have to look to the more flexible open source if you want to twist things.

    Thunderbird will let you store the mail file on a server and you can configure each client to access it from various computers (or one client can share the mail store from its computer via personal file sharing). Thunderbird won't think twice about this, provided the file isn't already in use by the other person. Obviously you should ensure both versions of Thunderbird are identical in version number, and ensure they patch at the same time.

    I think you should be looking at a server-side solution, not a desktop solution. Various configurations of IMAP or POP3 will let them download mail to their computers. Setting up a small private mail server just for them isn't difficult. This isn't the solution you're asking for, but it's how it should be done, and the users should be educated to work with it. Maybe you can setup some kind of webmail interface, and get them to use that? Then the mail can live on the server. I don't know much about the available webmail products but SquirrelMail is apparently very good.

    Other than that, using a virtual desktop system is probably the way to go. At least that will solve your concurrency problem. If person B accesses, it will kick person A off. Windows Terminal Server is better than VNC, IMHO, both in speed and security.
    posted by humblepigeon at 1:26 AM on June 3, 2007

    If you were using Exchange they could both access the account via Outlook Web Access. If you were using an IMAP server you could have them both point Thunderbird at the account. If you're using POP3 you can have them both receive the same email by setting the account to leave email on the server. It all depends on the features of the email system. VNC is no good, they'll be fighting over the mouse cursor and won't be able to use the email client at the same time.
    posted by rhizome at 1:58 AM on June 3, 2007

    Well, Exchange and IMAP are both designed to do exactly what you're talking about, aren't they? There are plenty of ways to get either one through a hosted solution--for example, you can basically get hooked up with an ISP that hosts the Exchange server themselves, but will set you up with your own domain and dedicated accounts for a monthly fee. Similarly, a lot of ISPs offer IMAP mail options.
    posted by LairBob at 7:58 AM on June 3, 2007

    Yeah, you're essentially describing exactly what IMAP does. The answer is to set up the single account on a mail server that's IMAP-capable, and then use Thunderbird (or Outlook, or whatever your client of choice) to access the account via IMAP. Everything will be stored on the server -- all the messages, folders, etc. -- and IMAP handles the concurrent-access thing very, very well. (Note that this is no different from me having my IMAP client on my work desktop running 24/7, and the IMAP client on my always-on home desktop running 24/7, and my IMAP client on my laptop running whenever the laptop isn't asleep -- they're all accessing the account constantly, and never have a problem.)
    posted by delfuego at 9:26 AM on June 3, 2007

    Thanks for the answers, four responses and four best answers. As you can tell, I know very little about corporate computing solutions. I am glad that this problem has an obvious solution.

    So it sounds like IMAP is the best solution. Since this is only a mild problem for them, the hosting and Exchange ideas won't happen (due to the cost). The POP3 idea is the simplest (leave the mail on the remote server), but they want to store their email locally.

    Here's my plan then, set up an IMAP server on the desktop that retrieves the mail from their POP3 account. Then I'll have them point their client at the local server.

    Two questions: Do I need to use Thunderbird to have the ability to archive and delete mail from the server? Should I set them up using a web client for accessing the email (that is located on the local server) from their laptops?
    posted by philomathoholic at 10:39 AM on June 3, 2007

    Actually, I'm not sure you can do exactly what you've described. You would generally replace your POP3 mail server with an IMAP server, and then everyone's mail clients would just log into that, instead.

    IMAP is really a more robust version of POP3. (I'm sure that that's not necessarily technically exactly correct, but you get the basic idea.) Where POP3 allows to store inbound messages centrally, by not having the clients erase them when you're downloaded, IMAP is actually designed around the idea that all the messages are centrally managed on the server. That brings two large advantages:
    1) It captures and stores outbound mail as well as inbound messages.
    2) It allows you to create folders on the server itself, and organize messages centrally.

    When you use Thunderbird or Outlook as an IMAP client, what you're essentially doing is creating a local mirror of your IMAP account that's stored on the centrally hosted server. When you "check" your mail on IMAP, instead pulling in any new messages like you do on POP3, you're really more synchronizing the local mirror image on your laptop with the central master version on the server.

    Put simply, if you start using IMAP, POP3 really doesn't enter into the equation any more. What you really want to do is to start using IMAP instead of POP3 at your ISP. If your current provider doesn't allow you to "upgrade", you'd need to find a different ISP that does offer IMAP, and then switch your mail domain to that ISP instead. That may be a little more hassle than you were hoping for, but I don't think you really want to try and deal with some kind of POP3/IMAP hybrid. It may seem a simpler way to start, but you're almost guaranteed to end up dealing with other ongoing problems from that kind of jury-rigged solution that'll make just switching over seem easy by comparison. Any decent ISP should be able to hold your hand through the domain-switching process pretty easily, and when you're done, you'll have a setup that's designed to do exactly what you want.
    posted by LairBob at 1:21 PM on June 3, 2007

    Do I need to use Thunderbird to have the ability to archive and delete mail from the server?
    Any decent mail client with IMAP capabilities will let you do that, including Outlook. Thunderbird is really just a good, solid free client that handles IMAP well, but if your team is already using Outlook, there's no reason to force them to change.

    Should I set them up using a web client for accessing the email (that is located on the local server) from their laptops?
    First of all, assuming that your IMAP ISP allows you to have web access (I can't imagine that they don't), then "setting up a web client" is really nothing more putting a bookmark into their browser, and explaining how to log in. Nevertheless, while that's definitely useful for them to know if they ever need to check their mail from a different computer, it'll be much easier for them to just continue using Outlook to manage their mail. Outlook will let them do everything they could through a web interface, and more. A web interface onto IMAP is really what you settle for if you can't use your regular desktop client.
    Once the IMAP server is set up, you just need to get into Outlook, create a new "account" that uses IMAP instead of POP3, and it'll just show up as a new set of folders for them in the left-hand navigation panel.
    posted by LairBob at 1:29 PM on June 3, 2007

    Well then, thank you for the correction LairBob. I think we will try the shared directory idea before attempting the IMAP solution. I think I could handle moving their mail to an ISP to one that supports IMAP, plus they would be gaining addresses that have as their domain the same address as their website. But when I said that they are a small company, I might have been exaggerating. It is literally, a mom and pop operation.

    Thanks again for all the great responses. I would calculate the signal/noise ratio, but that would require dividing by zero.
    posted by philomathoholic at 8:41 PM on June 3, 2007

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