Strategies to manage Microsoft Exchange

Let's face it: administering a Microsoft-based network inevitably means dealing with Exchange Server. Microsoft continues to lead the messaging market in new-account sales "by a significant margin", according to Erica Rugullies, principal analyst at Forrester Research. That's amazing success when you consider that today, with e-mail already a staple of every corporate network, leading the market isn't about finding new customers so much as it is about taking them away from someone else.

It's even more impressive when you consider the administrative burden that Exchange places on IT staff. Microsoft has taken Exchange far beyond basic e-mail, adding advanced collaboration features and a wide range of feature synergies with ever-tighter integration to other Microsoft platforms. Implementing, tracking, or even emulating these changes with other software is a never-ending challenge for Exchange administrators, on top of the everyday issues of e-mail reliability, performance, backup, recovery, provisioning, and security. Add to that the upgrade issue, with a new version of Exchange Server (codenamed Exchange 12) looming on the horizon, and you have a recipe for one of IT's toughest challenges.

But help is available. Third-party software vendors offer a wide variety of Exchange add-ons, from specific utilities to full-on management consoles to fully outsourced mail server management. Additionally, the lamentations of Exchange admins haven't fallen on deaf ears in the Redmond head office. Microsoft's Exchange team has responded to customer feedback with a number of new tools for managing Exchange today, in addition to having significantly rethought its approach to Exchange management for the future.

Management, Microsoft style

Despite its commanding role in the enterprise messaging market, Microsoft isn't resting on its laurels. Exchange still faces competition from its closest competitors, IBM and Novell. IBM's Lotus Notes/Domino platform, for example, is considered the strongest choice for quick development of groupware-style applications.

Redmond has taken overt steps to attack this core Notes capability with the combination of the .Net framework, Visual Basic for Applications, Exchange 2003, and SharePoint Portal Server. Because of its complexity, however, few Microsoft shops have made full use of this feature set to date. Deploying collaborative groupware applications on Exchange usually requires additional expertise with IIS, Internet Security and Acceleration Server, and Active Directory. That means a significant investment for these customers, and it places an extra pressure on Exchange administrators: reliability.

"If we get a customer to commit to an Exchange/SharePoint custom application, then maintaining that Exchange server becomes even more critical," says James Chang, an independent Microsoft IT and Exchange consultant. "I don't think Microsoft will ever be able to make Exchange fully manageable that way out of the box."

Microsoft has been working hard to enable just that, however, according to John Avner, group manager of Microsoft's Exchange support tools development team. A number of integrated server and technology offerings are slated to arrive in the Windows Vista time frame, including SharePoint Server 2007, Office 2007, and a long-awaited update to Exchange. New APIs will ease integration of these components, including the WWF (Windows Workflow Foundation), which will act as workflow "glue" for custom in-house application chains -- a definite move to invade Domino territory.

In addition to the upcoming features in Exchange 12, Avner's team is responsible for Microsoft's Exchange Server BPA (Best Practices Analyzer) tool, which he says has proven successful with customers. BPA is available at no cost. Once installed, the software scans the Exchange infrastructure, compares what it finds against Microsoft's existing technical knowledge base, and reports any discrepancies it finds, including resource links back to the knowledge base to explain problems and possible fixes.

The tool has proven so popular, in fact, that Avner's team is extending it into several new areas. First there will be Exchange Server Disaster Recovery Analyzer, which, though still maturing, is currently available for download. Next is Exchange Server Performance Troubleshooting Analyzer, which will allow users to describe performance symptoms or choose performance problem categories to begin the drill-down process, in addition to a scanning process.

"It's been a real lifesaver for us," says Michael Allen, senior administrator for Kforce, a professional staffing company. "BPA clued us in to issues we didn't even know we had, so we're definitely going to be using the new process analyzers as they come out."

Third-party options

But while Microsoft's new tools and its intended direction for Exchange 12 certainly make an effort to address mail server management concerns, there are still plenty of areas where Exchange admins would do well to rely on third-party help.

"You'd think it would be security, but that's not the hot button anymore," Kforce's Allen says, explaining that security has become a fairly routine headache for most Exchange administrators. "The key driver for us is reliability."

E-mail has become a critical business tool for Kforce, as it has for many companies. "We have entire relationships that exist in e-mail, and losing either the data or the capability even for a short time simply isn't an option anymore," Allen says.

This reliance on e-mail has become a trouble spot, as Allen's organization has had to move large amounts of mailbox data to a new infrastructure, including an upgrade from Exchange 2000 to Exchange 2003. Allen found that the native Exchange tools were neither reliable nor quick enough, so he turned to XOsoft InMotion, a tool specifically designed to handle large Exchange platform and data migrations.

"The dedicated expertise really paid off," Allen says. "We did the whole migration and moved over a terabyte of active data in less than a weekend. [There was] no downtime to the users at all; in fact, most of them never knew it happened. We couldn't have done that with Exchange tools out of the box."

Reporting and monitoring is another area where ISVs can lend Exchange admins a hand. CNF, a $US3.7 billion global retail and industrial supply chain company, manages roughly 20 Exchange servers across all its offices, utilizing both WAN and clustering technologies, largely via Microsoft's internal tools. For real-time monitoring and reporting, however, messaging administrator Scott Bueffel now uses Quest Software's MessageStats and Spotlight products.

MessageStats captures native Exchange traffic logs and combines them with WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation) data and information from Active Directory to provide historical trend data, presented in a way that's easy for Exchange administrators to understand. Spotlight provides visual topology monitoring capabilities that are entirely lacking in Exchange's native toolkit.

Microsoft's Avner acknowledges the need for third-party tools when managing Exchange and points to a slew of third-party vendors that exploit gaps in the Exchange feature set. Rather than obviating the need for these tools, Microsoft gives ISVs access to the internal APIs and resources they need to develop competitive products.

The cost question

While the range of tools and add-on functionality available for Exchange Server is broad, the next biggest concern for many Exchange managers is cost, especially for SMBs. That's one reason many Exchange installations, even by Microsoft's own calculations, still run Exchange Server 5.5. Third-party tools can add life to venerable Exchange installations, delaying the need to move to a new Exchange version and sometimes eliminating the need for an upgrade entirely.

"The migration cost is simply too high," says Yan Fortin, senior network administrator at Westcliff Management, a large Canadian commercial property management company. Westcliff is still largely based on the Windows 2000 Server platform, so upgrading to Exchange 2003 means upgrading the entire server infrastructure to Windows 2003 Server to ensure reliability.

"You can run Exchange 2003 on Windows 2000," Fortin says. "But all reports say reliability is definitely an issue, and we just can't have that with e-mail." He also points out that his users have become dependent on instant messaging, which came bundled with Exchange 2000 but was subsequently moved to the Live Communications Server product when Exchange 2003 arrived. "So now you're paying even more for something you already had," he says, "or you have to take something away from your users."

While biding his time, waiting for management to approve an upgrade, Fortin instead looks to beef up Exchange 2000's functionality with third-party tools like GFI Software's MailEssentials. "It's a great tool," he says. "It handles not only antispam duties (which aren't native to Exchange 2000) but also does archiving, disclaimers, and more; and it does this all centrally, so I don't have to run around to every client station. It gives us the reliability we need, but costs only a fraction of a whole platform upgrade."

Using MailEssentials and a few other third-party tools allows Fortin not only to extend Westcliff's investment in Exchange 2000, but possibly to skip the expense of migrating to Exchange 2003. "It's a long shot, because we almost never buy [the initial release] of any Microsoft product," he says, but adds that if he can hang on until Exchange 12 Service Pack 1, a leapfrog from Exchange 2000 may be in the cards.

For other customers, however, especially those in the SMB segment, even a long list of third-party options is little help. They just want e-mail and collaboration. For these businesses, outsourcing is a popular option that translates directly into cost savings.

"[Cost is] the No. 1 reason people turn to us," says Patrick Fetterman, CEO of Exchange hosting provider Mi8. Although it has a large SMB installed base, Mi8 markets primarily to larger customers, who require greater flexibility. Fetterman says that even enterprise customers can realize cost reductions of between 15 and 25 percent, depending on the specifics of the implementation.

Other vendors, such as Azaleos and Teneros, provide a variation on the hosting theme. These companies drop dedicated hardware at customer locations and either manage the entire Exchange infrastructure on site, or simply mirror it and manage it from a central operations location.

Fortunately, Microsoft has finally begun to take managed messaging seriously. Hosting providers have traditionally purchased Exchange under a special licensing scheme, but feature-wise little else was different. That began to change as recently as Exchange 2003 SP2, however, with Microsoft adding a whole series of features designed for hosting scenarios. These include not only better support for large numbers of users, but also specific features for managing multi-tenant scenarios and a beefed-up Webmail client.

"There's been a groundswell of change at Microsoft regarding the hosted version of Exchange, especially over the last year," Fetterman says. "And that's only going to get better when Exchange 12 comes out."

Stay flexible

All of the messaging professionals we spoke with agree on one thing: examining all your Exchange management options is worth the effort. "All the day-to-day fire alarms means that many [network administrators] just string together a plan once and stick to it," says Exchange consultant James Chang. "That's a mistake. Make the time to look around for new ways of doing things, and not just from Microsoft."

Whether they come from Redmond or from a third party, new management utilities can not only save you time and bother, they can also give your IT budget a break. Fewer man-hours spent on problem resolutions, faster diagnostic resolutions, and, hey, maybe even an extra year between upgrades ... add all that up, and you're talking about real money.