Monday, June 30, 2008

"Cheating" on an Exchange 2003 Hardware Upgrade

Hello Everyone,

I "cheated" on an Exchange 2003 hardware upgrade I did 2 weekends ago (Fri-Sat), or that's at least how I feel since this was hands down the fastest and easiest upgrade I've ever done (and it was about 80GB of db's on an older server with direct attached storage). At the end of the weekend, I started to think maybe I should carry around one of these "things" for my clients for upgrades. I'll share what this "thing" was later in the posting. I don't want folks to think I'm pushing products. My role in the project was to insure the replacement of the Exchange Server hardware went smoothly. The client was in production 24/7 and literally the office was staffed 6 days a week. So, I was concerned originally how to insure minimal downtime.

Background on existing hardware & performance
We were upgrading from an Exchange 2003 Server that was installed with 3 hard drives in a RAID 5 hard drive configuration (direct attached storage) for the OS, transaction logs, and Exchange databases. Company had about 60 users and 30 BlackBerrys or so. 1 BES user adds a load similar to 2 Outlook users. So, total company usage was about 120 users. Performance was an issue, so some users were configured for cached mode to "improve" performance. Cached mode should not be required for LANs, unless Outlook end users are receiving "retrieving data from server". Always a bad sign to see unless you have poor network connection. Recommended another DAS server that used RAID 1 for the OS, RAID 1 for transaction logs, and RAID 10 for the Exchange databases.

The Migration for a hardware refresh
So, I checked the OS install (another admin handled that), Exchange install (using the /disasterrecovery switch for setup and service pack 2), Exchange config, and insuring the email & public folder migration completed successful. Only catch was during this server replacement, there was to be no downtime and no use of Exchange clustered services. Hmmm, that's a challenge. Or so one would think.

The Cheat
The client I was working for happened to have a 3rd party product (keeping read to find out) for Exchange that in essence allowed the "cheating". And I mean this in a very good way. It saved us a LOT of time. Meaning, we told the 3rd party product to take over all the existing Exchange services (MAPI, SMTP, OWA, IMAP, etc) and all data for the Outlook, OWA, ActiveSync, & BlackBerry was available to all users. This took a few minutes (3 or 4 minutes) on the switch-over. Meaning the appliance takes some time to take control. Once that was done, everyone was operating off the appliance and end users didn't know this besides restarting Outlook and re-authenticating to OWA (ActiveSync & BES users had a slight delay. BES users could be out of service for up to 15 minutes, but that's a limitation of BES). Once the appliance took over, we copied over the Exchange databases (.edb/.stm's) using robocopy to the new Exchange 2003 Server. We considered upgrading to 2007, but the appliance and all the associated Exchange applications would have had to been upgraded, and it wasn't cost effective (TCO reminder). So, after we started robocopy-ing, we went home.

Day 2 of the Migration & Failback
I'm not going to go into the details, but migrating took a few hours including getting the SSL certs for OWA and handling all that. Once the new hardware was setup with Exchange, it was time to bring back all the new email. As I previously said, the reason to copy over the databases to the new server, was the appliance then doesn't need to copy over all data, and just new email/data. So, this is a huge time saver. Once we copied over the databases and transaction logs, we were able to get the Exchange Server fully operational and enable the failback from the appliance. We then failed back from the appliance to the new Exchange Server. This took a lot longer to check that all data was copied from the appliance to the new Exchange Server. This took 10 hours or so and then everyone had to relaunch Outlook and re-authenticate against the new server.

Appliance Details
The "cheat" was an Exchange high availability appliance from Teneros. Even though this appliance runs 2 operating systems, Linux and Windows, the entire configuration is on 2 web pages. Meaning, the Teneros support team is really what runs this product, not the Exchange admin. As per the web interface, to say the amount of information and configuration is sparse, is putting it lightly. Overall the product worked well and we ran into 2 glitches due to permissions and resetting process of the AD name due to poor documentation. And the migration process took longer than expected since the status of synchronization is not very accurate. Not a big deal, since end users are working during the failover and failback. Overall solution is very impressive, but I have some doubts since I'm not a big fan of trusting secret functionality of a black box type solution. I like to know how applications work and I do have concerns over Exchange updates or patches breaking the Teneros functionality. If you are curious, pricing is around $10k, give or take a few thousands. If you wanted to see the demo, Teneros did present at the NY Exchange User Group meeting back in November of December of 2007 or check out their website.

There are many other software solutions on the market that do this, and so I'll blog about when I work with them. My user group has had demo's and presentation on a # of them, but this was the first real world usage of one.

Let me know your thoughts on this.


Friday, June 20, 2008

2 Outlook Add-ons / Improving TCO for Exchange 2007

Hello All,

I feel I owe an apology to my blog readers for the long period between blog posts. I've thought about my blog each time I read about a mail related topic. It's time to share my insight into Exchange and life as a ehlo tech. I've committed myself to post shorter if necessary postings, just to insure folks are kept up to date.

So, 3 things that I've wanted to share for a few months (actually a few years for one tool).

1) I personally use and recommend to all clients the best Outlook searching tool I've found for performance, ease of use, stability, and cost for Outlook 2003 (it's been around for years, and is still rock solid). The tool is called Lookout. A bit of background on the tool. The creators of this amazing tool were hired (software company was bought by Microsoft) and now this functionality has been incorporated into MSN Desktop Search. When I reviewed MDS, I still thought Lookout was better based on my 4 criteria above. It might have changed, but Lookout is pretty close to perfect. For clients, the easiest way to explain Lookout, is to refer to Lookout as Google for Outlook. Very fast and easy to use. You can download the latest version 1.30 before they closed shop to work for Microsoft via this URL. If you have any issues, drop me an email or add a comment and I'll post it since I still have a copy of both latest versions (1.30 & 1.28).

2) There has been a lot of talk about Xobni for it's built-in searching, stats functionality for Outlook usage, and handy access to recent attachment. I love the idea of stats (reporting how much email sent/received, etc), unfortunately, I don't need searching and can't afford to give up so much real estate in Outlook (it adds a side panel similar to the 3 paneled look) for very cool usage "stats" and UI change for attachments. But, let me know in the comments area any feedback on it. I'm curious. I'll probably need to fire up a virtual machine (VM) to take a look at this.

Joys of Lookout and Xobni by Windows IT Pro. (Site was done when I posted this, so I wanted to confirm no login was required for it. Not sure.)

Xobni's Outlook 2003/2007 Tool for Improving UI, Searching, and Stats. Company's website of their FAQ URL .

3) My background in economics and accounting has always played a major role in insuring technology upgrades and improvements are cost effective. So, having said this, I was a bit surprised when I heard the UI had been changed dramatically in Exchange 2007. One feature that increased TCO was the requirement of using 2 UIs to create new users. The single ADUC (AD Users and Computers) is not adequate anymore. So, a vendor realizing the concern for companies created a single UI for AD and Exchange user creation and modifications. They also plan to add a # of very useful features. I think this is a great idea even though it's 3rd party software, especially considering they'll probably add a lot more functionality than MS would.

Product is called Exchange Tasks 2007 and is from U-BSmart.

Demo of Exchange Tasks 2007 by 3rd party (improving TCO for Exchange 2007)

Quote from MS about U-BSmart's Exchange 2007 Tasks

Besides what we covered here, the guys behind the Exchange 2007 Tasks utility have plans on adding features such as Export to PST, Export to Mailbox, a fully integrated Active Directory property page for valid recipient objects, the ability to handle and manage Dynamic Distribution Groups, a Hide Group Members task, the ability to handle and manage Resource Mailboxes, improved management of Unified Messaging and more to future versions of the product.

If you use any of the products above, post some comments and let me know your results.