Office 365 Drops Site Mailboxes. What Should You Do Next?

Posted on February 3, 2017 by Tony Redmond in Office, Office 365, SharePoint with 0 Comments

Site Mailboxes message

Office 365 Starts the Countdown for Site Mailbox Termination

According to a note (MC92090) published through the Office 365 Admin Center on January 31, 2017, beginning in March 2017, SharePoint site owners will no longer be able to create new site mailboxes. Existing site mailboxes will function until they are replaced by something else. The news was expected, but it poses some challenges for tenants who have deployed site mailboxes to serve purposes like contract management that involve a mixture of email communication and document management.

Site Mailboxes 101

A site mailbox allows users to share email information along with pointers (“stubs”) to files held in a document library. Administrators create a site mailbox by adding the mailbox app to a site, which causes SharePoint to create a new Exchange mailbox. Users can then create and send messages from the site mailbox or move items from their mailboxes to the site mailbox to share with other members of the site. Figure 1 shows how Outlook presents the stubs for documents stored in a SharePoint document library associated with a site mailbox.

Site mailbox Outlook

Figure 1: Site Mailbox in use with Outlook (image credit: Tony Redmond)

Customers never embraced the concept of site mailboxes and their usage was low, even within Office 365 where Microsoft took care of the work required to integrate SharePoint and Exchange. The advent of Office 365 Groups and the continued popularity of shared mailboxes provided customers with sufficient means to share information. The long-term direction is to replace site mailboxes with Groups, and Microsoft expects to provide a migration tool in late 2017.

The Difference with Office 365 Groups

Two major features distinguish site mailboxes from Office 365 Groups. First, the integration between site mailboxes and Outlook clients functions more like a shared mailbox. For instance, users can drag and drop items from their personal mailbox or a shared mailbox into the site mailbox. Unlike the conversations stored in group mailboxes, Exchange treats items stored in the site mailbox as messages and retain all the characteristics of the messages.

Second, site mailboxes use pointers to represent files. The pointers hold some attributes, such as the author, file size, document name, and so on, and a synchronization process keeps the pointers updated. Office 365 Groups always defer to the browser interfere when users want to open files in the group document library.

What Now?

The question for those using site mailboxes is how to proceed. They can wait until Microsoft delivers the migration tool to move existing site mailboxes to Office 365 Groups, but what should they do to satisfy new user needs after March 2017? The options are to use:

  • Shared mailboxes.
  • Office 365 Groups.

The answer will be different depending on the business needs. Shared mailboxes are best if the functionality required is email-centric, like the need to provide a single repository for a team to handle collective tasks. Dedicated folders, such as one for each customer or project, can hold any documents related to the tasks.

Office 365 Groups are best when the need is more document-centric. For example, a team managing contracts on behalf of a company is likely to need some of the document management capabilities found in document libraries, like check-in/check-out. In these circumstance, an Office 365 group is the best option.

OWA’s Access to Group Mailboxes

Interestingly, although Outlook desktop does not allow you to drag and drop (or copy) items from personal mailboxes to a group mailbox, OWA is perfectly happy to accommodate this functionality. To do this, you add the group mailbox to OWA as a shared folder, which is OWA-speak for a shared mailbox. Here’s how:

  • Expand the Folders section of OWA to expose your mailbox name.
  • Select the mailbox name and select “Add shared folder” from the right-click menu.
  • Input the name (or SMTP address) of the group mailbox you want to access (Figure 2). In this case, I’m selecting the Exchange Grumpy Old Men group (a fine collection of humans). See this article for the steps used to create this group by converting an email distribution group.

OWA group mailbox shared folder

Figure 2: Adding a group mailbox as an OWA shared folder (image credit: Tony Redmond)

  • OWA adds the group mailbox to its resource list.
  • Click the group mailbox to open it and expose its folders. Group conversations are in the Inbox, but all the other folders are available (Figure 3).
  • You can now drag and drop or copy items from your mailbox to the group mailbox.

It is possible that this access is because OWA treats group mailboxes in the same way as shared mailboxes. The same technique does not work with Outlook desktop because you cannot add group mailboxes to an Outlook profile in the same way as you can add a shared mailbox.

OWA group mailbox

Figure 3: Accessing the items in a group mailbox Inbox with OWA (image credit: Tony Redmond)

Collaboration Options

Microsoft offers many collaboration methods within Office 365 – Groups, Teams, Yammer, shared mailboxes, and plain-old email. It is reasonable to expect that they should whittle down the less successful methods, which is exactly what has happened with site mailboxes. Transitions are painful for users and tenant administrators alike. At least there are some places to go!

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Want to know more about how to manage Office 365? Find what you need to know in “Office 365 for IT Pros”, the most comprehensive eBook covering all aspects of Office 365. Available in PDF and EPUB formats (suitable for iBooks) or for Amazon Kindle.


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