20060126 Thunderbird Inbox blank problem
Thursday January 26, 2006
Category: General
I managed to convince a client to use Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice 2.0 in their 10-men office. A small victory for the open source solutions world. :) So far their experience has been ok, with only a handful of users complaining about certain additional steps needed in OpenOffice 2.0 when compared to MS Office to perform the same task.

However, this week a problem that I have not encountered before occurred: the director's Thunderbird on her notebook refuses to work! Basically, the symptoms are as follows:
  • When Thunderbird is opened, Inbox is displayed as blank, with the message "Building summary file" in the status bar
  • The memory usage of Thunderbird grows to a very big value.
  • The CPU Usage soars.
  • Other applications cannot response with the usual speed.

After a very long time building the summary file, the Inbox is displayed with around 1000+ files, but once I clicked on another folder and click back to Inbox, the same long building started again. It puzzled me because I remember also having large folders with more than 8000 emails, and I never encountered that problem before. I first thought it was a virus/spyware problem, but after scanning for everything, the machine was reported as clean from such problems. I even upgraded her Thunderbird client to version 1.5, but still the same problem appeared.

Took me a while with different search strings at google to finally find the mozillazine article on Inbox stays blank. Apparently the Inbox file was corrupted, and Thunderbird was not able to complete the building of the summary file properly. And the reason I did not encounter the problem was because I have more than 8000 emails in a folder but my folders are never larger than 50MB, whereas her single Inbox file was more than 200MB.

I followed the article until the point where it says "if this succeeds, you can move .....", and the next point at that time was "if this also fails, you may have to take your loss". The problem is when I tried to import the Inbox file the MboxImport extension reports that the file is not a valid mbox format file.

No way for my client to lose her 1000+ emails though, so I have to find another way to solve the problem. Knowing that the mbox file format is just a plain text, I proceeded to open it with Vim (which resulted in my other problem with Vim), and finally was able to see that the first line was corrupted and somehow became a very long time. I removed the first line and corrected the From statement (looking at other emails down the file and copied the From statement). I repeated the import using MboxImport and luckily now the file was recognised as an mbox file!

After being about to recover the emails in the one big Inbox, I proceeded to compact folders and moved older mails into separate folders, with the aim to keep individual mbox files small. Problem was solved, but I believe it will recurr some time in the future if the user is not educated to perform housekeeping regularly.

I updated the mozillazine article with 2 additional points to summarize my solution, hoping it would help someone else with a similar problem. However, it is quite puzzling that Thunderbird does not suggest a limit on the mailbox size so that users will know that keeping all emails in one folder is going to be hazardous to their "informational health".

Lesson learnt: (1) Compact your Thunderbird folders often. (2) Split up mails into folders to avoid single large mbox files. Maybe when I figure out how to submit enhancements/bugs to Thunderbird, I will submit a suggestion for Thunderbird to remind users to archive and compact emails (MS Outlook has such a reminder, but I almost never say yes to "Do you want to archive your emails" though. :P).
Posted on (2006-01-25 23:12:52.0) Permalink Comments [4]
Trackback URL: http://jroller.com/trackback/dunpanic/Weblog/thunderbird_inbox_blank_problem

You should consider using IMAP. I have 10K+ emails in some of my folders and never had such problem.

Posted by Dmitri Maximovich on January 26, 2006 at 01:35 PM SGT
Website: http://jroller.com/page/maximdim #

I had\ have a very similar problem since yesterday jan 30.
It all started when a reveived a virused email blackmal.f, that my ez antivirs deleted but i think it first corrupted some file.
Thereafter thunderbird reread like you described, the who email list size of file 600mb. but it couldnt see any emails that i had recieved during the last month. I reran all 2 antiviruses and found nothing
Finally I went into my thunderbird profile and extracted the the "inbox" file from the local folders file. After that I imported the folder again, and voila. it again can read the mails
Since then i have made my inbox smaller by moving to more folders however every time i open up the inbox thunderbird cannt calculate the number of mails i have in the inbox, it varied between 1000 and 40'000, I am not sure what to do about it. Maybe i will remove all of thunderbird and reinstall. If the "inbox" file is corrupted i dont know how to open it up

Posted by menash on February 01, 2006 at 12:46 AM SGT #

My wife encountered the similar problem today, but when she moved the emails from her Inbox into other folders and compact the Inbox, it did not get smaller, staying at around 95MB. In the end I asked her to create another folder named "InboxNew" and copy all the emails from Inbox to InboxNew. The newly created file for InboxNew was just 15MB. This means that somehow compacting a folder might not work really well too. One last step was to delete the files Inbox and Inbox.msf from the profile/mail/[mailbox] folder and start Thunderbird. Thunderbird would recreate the Inbox and Inbox.msf files, so that the files from InboxNew can be copied back into Inbox. The problem went away after this exercise.

Posted by choongyong ( on February 01, 2006 at 01:24 AM SGT
Website: http://jroller.com/page/dunpanic #

As someone else said, use IMAP but ALSO make sure that not all mail is stored in one file on the IMAP server. Ideally you want Maildir format for the IMAP mail storeage where each email is a separate file. If there's any corruption, it's limited to one mail file (and probably easily fixed). If you use mbox format, all mails are held in one file per folder, and corruption will cause problems for the whole folder.


Posted by graham ( on February 15, 2006 at 01:26 AM SGT #

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