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Issue #745: Oct 31 – Nov 6, 2021

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Q: How can I conveniently transfer my old emails to a cd? Thanks for your helpful column.

 – Eugene S.
Crestview, Florida

A: Thanks, Eugene, though I fear that you’re going to find this edition of It’s Geek To Me to be less than helpful in answering your question, though I hope it will be educational.

The only information that I know about your need is what you stated in your question: you have some quantity of old e-mail messages, and you want to transfer them to a CD.  That is only a small sliver of the information that I actually need to provide you with a useful answer. It also doesn’t take into account some potential pitfalls, like the fact that a CD only has enough storage space for 640 megabytes of data, and your e-mail could easily be bigger than that.

As for missing information, let’s start with a big one: from where did you intend to transfer these old e-mails?  This is critical information, because the answer is going to be different depending on whether you use webmail or e-mail client software, and for that matter, it will be different for every webmail provider, and for every e-mail client.

Another big one is format – both the format the e-mail is currently in, and what your expectations are about how it will be stored and accessed.  E-mail is different than most other kinds of data that a user typically handles.  Data files like pictures, music, text documents and so forth reside in individual files that are independent from each other.  Each file has its own name, and lives in a known folder on your disc, and can easily be moved or copied to another location.  E-mail is not like that.  E-mail messages live within the framework of whatever webmail or client that you answered in the previous question.  This provides all of your ability to read and store e-mail messages.  When you start to “transfer” messages out of this framework, you lose many of the abilities that the framework provides, such as searching, sorting, etc.  In other words, finding a particular e-mail from among the thousands you’re likely to want to store becomes exponentially more difficult. 

Just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose for a minute that you use a particular e-mail client that creates a database of your e-mails on your local PC.  It’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to separate individual e-mails from the database for archiving, leaving your only choice to back up the entire database.  Since your choice of backup media is CD, that limits your database size to around 650-700 megabytes.  That’s the amount of data that can typically fit on a common writeable CD. 

While you’re pondering all of the above, also ponder this: what will you do with this CD-based e-mail database backup once you’ve created it?  The typical use for such a backup is data restoration in the wake of catastrophic data loss, such as a hard drive crash.  You must remember that when you make a backup like this, it is a line in the sand, and the very next new e-mail that arrives makes the backup obsolete, and it becomes more and more so over time.  If you restore from it, everything that has happened since the backup was created will still be lost.

Now that I’ve probably totally let the wind out of your sails and seem to have made a case that makes me sound like I am totally against data backups (which I am most definitely an advocate for) let me offer you some questions for thought, and a little bit of advice which may or may not be helpful to you.  First off, exactly what do you wish to accomplish by transferring e-mails like you’ve described?  If you’re trying to downsize your e-mail footprint, judicious deletion of aging e-mails, advertising, just plain SPAM, and so on can vastly reduce the size of your inbox.  If it’s for data integrity to protect e-mail from data loss, you’re far better off with a cloud-based solution than CDs.

Here’s how I backup my e-mail:  I don’t.  At least, not explicitly.  My e-mail all remains on the server, whether I access it using webmail or an e-mail reader.  Using the IMAP protocol, the mail server does all the work.  I can create folders, filter SPAM, read, create, and reply to e-mail, all without having to store the e-mail on a local machine.  I have the exact same view of my e-mail on every device I use, and I rely on the professionals who administer the e-mail server for data integrity.  I might be totally off-base, but I presume that anyone running such a data center has a comprehensive backup plan in place.  I’ll be one unhappy Geek if their drives crash and that turns out not to be the case!

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