Deciphering the “Mystery of the PST”

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Exciting news yesterday on two open-source tools released by Microsoft that now give software developers remarkable insight into .PST files.

This is vitally important and exciting to the world of e-discovery. One of the first places we look for information today is e-mail. And if we want e-mail, there’s a high probability that it will come from a Microsoft Outlook / Exchange environment. And if the e-mail comes from Microsoft Outlook / Exchange, we’ll probably receive a .PST file.

Craig Ball (as always) does a great job of explaining how we encounter .PST files in e-discovery matters in “How to Go Native Without Going South.”

Any IT professional that manages a Microsoft Exchange server can export .PST files. Anyone that uses Microsoft Outlook can export a .PST file from their desktop (File > New > Outlook Data File, or I usually click File > Import and Export).

The .PST is a common file format for transporting multiple e-mail messages, but a .PST file can also contain calendar information, notes, and contact information. When we request e-mail from a client, we either receive a complete .PST file or a “reconstituted file” (as Craig Ball puts it) that contains select, relevant e-mail messages.

The problem is that when lawyers get a .PST file, the apparently irrepressible instinct is to immediately open it in Outlook to see what it contains (since we know that’s where the juiciest stuff lives). This is a bad idea for several reasons, but no doubt it’s important to crack into that .PST file as soon as possible. This is what I call the “mystery of the .PST,” a phrase I used in my review of Wave Software’s Trident software that was never published (until I uploaded it here).

Up until yesterday, we had to have Outlook to peek inside a .PST file. Many litigation support / e-discovery tools process .PST files including Trident,  CT Summation, LAW PreDiscovery, Discovery Cracker, etc. But to do so, they had to have access to Microsoft Outlook to interpret the complexities of the .PST through the Messaging Application Programming Interface (MAPI) and the Outlook Object Model.

The new tools from Microsoft (the PST Data Structure View Tool and the PST File Format SDK released as open-source software) now negate the need to have Microsoft Outlook installed on a system that’s processing .PST files. This is a huge boon to the e-discovery software industry. No lawyer will need to touch these tools, but if you develop e-discovery software today, you should put your best folks on this immediately if you haven’t already. This will dramatically streamline many of the tools already on the market, and provide opportunities for additional, more robust, behind-the-scenes, invasive indexing of .PST files for finding the relevant messages necessary for litigation.

You know this is important for our industry becuase Microsoft’s own press release even mentions e-discovery as one of the “complex scenarios” where these tools will be useful.

The tools in their current state offer read-only capabilities, but this video promises that full write capabilities are on the roadmap.

(My appreciation to Paul Bain who posted links to related stories on The Litigation Support List)

UPDATE 2010.05.27: Another great story from CNET on Microsoft opening-up access to Outlook .PST files, including the possibility of opening .PST files in Google Apps or Thunderbird. This is significant because we will now have the ability to open .PST files in applications other than Outlook. Again, this will not always be the most prudent method of exploring the “mystery” of a .PST, but it’s fantastic to have options WITHOUT the need for squirrelly, third-party utilities.

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