In-Depth

New Mail Carrier

Exchange Server 2003 is out, with improvements in mobile access and content delivery, and enhanced Outlook Web Access functionality among other upgrades. Here are the top 13 new features you need to know about.

OK, so Exchange Server 2003 is out. Your boss has read about it on a news Web site and wants to know, by Thursday’s meeting, whether or not the company needs to consider upgrading or migrating to it. He wants specifics on the design, implementation and management costs of moving to Exchange 2003 vs. the costs of staying on Exchange 5.5. And don’t forget the concrete ROI figures. Of course, you have to fit this into your normal harried schedule, because you’re not getting any of your other work offloaded to make room for this little task.

Here’s a starting point for your journey. We take a look at the 13 most important improvements in Micro-soft’s newest messaging platform, to help you determine the potential for improving your e-mail service. Hurry up! Thursday will be here before you know it.

1. Shutting the Spam Spigot
Exchange 2003 now supports Real-time Safe and Block Lists, also known as RBL. With RBL, organizations can subscribe to a service that keeps lists of IP addresses that allow spam and/or SMTP relaying. Exchange 2003 can be configured to check the IP address of every incoming SMTP connection with the RBL provider. When a sending SMTP server connects to the Exchange 2003 SMTP virtual server, a simple DNS-style query is done to the RBL service provider. Depending on the response code returned by the RBL service provider, the SMTP connection is either allowed to continue or is terminated.

This approach to spam adds very little overhead to the messaging system. Messages aren’t scanned for keywords or bounced around from server to server, and the message is never allowed to enter the messaging system. The drawback is that your protection is only as good as the lists maintained by the service provider.

RBL configuration provides for a wide variety of RBL provider scenarios and configuration options. In the simplest case, an administrator configures an RBL provider that returns a single code for all dangerous addresses. In a more complex configuration, multiple Block List Services can be configured, each providing a specific block list area of expertise. One Block List Service, for instance, might focus on open relays and another might focus on known spammers. Each of these services might have a unique response coding scheme.

2. Anti-spam Integration with Outlook 2003 and
Outlook Web Access

Outlook 2003 users can establish their own safe and block lists. Block lists are lists of users or domains that Outlook will identify as Junk Mail. Safe lists contain users and domains from which the client allows messages. These lists of users and domains are stored in the mailbox on the server. Storing the lists on the server makes them available to the Outlook Web Access (OWA) client. This way, lists built when using the Outlook 2003 client can also be used by OWA.

3. Improved Virus- Scanning API
A new version of the Virus Scanning API, 2.0, was delivered with Exchange 2000 SP1. This version of VSAPI improved e-mail scanning and reporting on the sender and recipient of the virus. Exchange 2003 has yet another version, 2.5, that allows antivirus products to run more easily on front-end Exchange servers, delete infected messages and send notifications to the sender of the infected message.

4. Air Mail
Outlook Mobile Access (OMA) gives mobile users a new way to access Exchange 2003 mail. Users can access e-mail, contacts, calendar and tasks with mobile devices such as cell phones and PDAs that support HTMP, xHTML or cHTML. The interface takes a little time to get used to because of the text-based menu interface on a small device, but all the information from your mailbox or address book is there. The default URL for access is http:///oma, where you get prompted for a logon. This can be cumbersome in the age of complex passwords. Once logged in, you can read, reply to and forward messages, as well as look up address book information, change your password and perform other common messaging tasks. It’s also useful for dial-up connections. Just open your mailbox using your PC’s browser and get a text-based interface, which is much quicker than the Outlook GUI over slow connections.

OMA is installed by default with Exchange 2003. OMA can be configured at the user level and at the enterprise level. By default, users are enabled for OMA, but as you can see in Figure 1, the enterprise isn’t. Also notice that there’s a grayed-out option to enable unsupported devices. Activating support for unsupported devices may have some unexpected results, but in our tests, we were able to use OMA and unsupported devices to access Exchange information.

Outlook Mobile Access
Figure 1. Although Outlook Mobile Access is installed by default, it’s not enabled by default. Do that here. (Click image to view larger version.)

5. Message Recovery Made Easy
IT mail administrators flinch when their cell phones ring and the IT director’s on the other end asking if a message can be recovered. And things were only made worse with the move from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000 with Active Directory integration complicating things. Fortunately, Exchange 2003 greatly simplifies the process with the Recovery Storage Group.

The Recovery Storage Group allows recovery of information stores on a live production server with active users. Once a Recovery Storage Group is created on a production server, information stores can be restored and messages moved to one or more mailboxes.

A companion to the Recovery Storage Group is a new version of the Exchange Migration Wizard, or Exmerge. When recovering messages, ExMerge moves messages from the recovered information store to the production information store, allowing for more disaster recovery scenarios. One example is when a user mistakenly deletes a message. The recovered information store and ExMerge are used to move messages within a certain date range back into the mailbox. This is a much-needed improvement to the disaster recovery options of previous version’s Exchange server. Another example is the recovery of a single mailbox. When a store becomes corrupt, it’s now possible to get the users up and running as soon as possible using a new store. The Recovery Storage Group can then be used to backfill recovered messages from the recovered store into the new production information store.

6. Mailbox Recovery Center
The Mailbox Recovery Center (MRC) is a new feature that assists in the recovery of mailboxes deleted from the directory (along with the AD user). MRC allows administrators to accomplish a variety of useful tasks during a recovery. In organizations with several Exchange servers and several information stores, when an AD user and mailbox is deleted from the directory (but the mailbox is retained under the mailbox retention policy), it’s common for the user to be recreated and re-associated with the mailbox. However, in large organizations, there’s no easy way to locate the mailbox. The MRC allows you to gather all deleted mailboxes and re-associate them with an AD user.

7. Better, More Accurate Backups
Exchange 2003 takes advantage of Windows Server 2003’s (if you’re running 2003) new shadow copy capability. The Exchange 2003 volume shadow copy feature is better than traditional backup methods because it takes a snapshot of the disk at the start of the backup. Once the snapshot is taken, the backup is made of the snapshot. This ensures that the backup is of a single point in time. Pre-Exchange 2003, backup of an information store started as the information store was changing.

One caveat: Shadow Copy backup is really only practical with full backups. Those familiar with Exchange backup schemes know that you can perform a full backup and then follow it up with differential or incremental backups. These are then restored on top of the full backup to create a complete restore, minimizing backup time. Since the differential and incremental backups only back up the transaction logs, a volume shadow copy would defeat the point of backing up only the transaction logs.

8. More Efficient Distribution Groups
A common Exchange feature used by organizations is distribution groups. While convenient for users, administering distribution groups can be time consuming, as individuals are added to and deleted from distribution groups as they change roles and enter or leave an organization. To simplify managing these lists, Exchange 2003 has query-based distribution groups. Distribution group membership is dynamic, based on an AD query at the time a message is sent. Users who meet the criteria of the LDAP query will be sent the message.

Query-based distribution groups are a great way to create distribution groups for individuals based on location or role. Rather than having to keep up a list of all the individuals in a particular building or office location, a mail administrator can create a query-based distribution group based on the Office field of the AD user account.

Another feature mail administrators struggle with is the All Employees or All Managers distribution group. These types of distribution groups are used for internal administrative purposes and not intended for use by regular users. We’ve all seen the e-mail from the novice user to the All Employees distribution group about selling his used lawnmower, which resulted in six replies to the All Employees distribution group. Exchange 2003 has distribution group restrictions that allow administrators to determine who can send messages to a distribution list, allowing only select users to send messages to these groups. Exchange 2003 can also be configured to only accept messages from authenticated users, keeping e-mail from outside the organization from being delivered to members of the distribution group.

9. Beefed-Up Deployment Tools
Deploying Exchange is now easier with help from the Exchange Server Deployment tool, a set of tools with a wizard-type user interface that walks you through the migration process. There are two starting points for moving to Exchange 2003—from Exchange 5.5 and Exchange 2000.

If you use Exchange 2000, the migration is simplified by the fact that both use AD. Exchange 2000 servers can either be upgraded in place, or new Exchange 2003 servers can be added to the existing organization and mailboxes can be moved between the two.

Since in-place upgrading isn’t an option from Exchange 5.5, the Exchange Deployment Tool guides you step-by-step through the migration process. The deployment tool takes you through the planning steps, uses tools to validate configuration of underlying services like global catalogs and the schema, and provides a trail of logs to troubleshoot inconsistencies that may occur during the process.

After guiding you through the planning, the deployment tool then steps you through preparing AD for Exchange 2003 with ForestPrep and DomainPrep. Once AD is prepared, the tool guides you through the once-complicated procedure of setting up the AD Connector. The new AD Connector tool helps identify resource mailboxes in Exchange 5.5 and configures the necessary connection agreements to effectively coexist between Exchange 5.5 and AD.

Another tool that greatly helps simplify a migration from Exchange 5.5 is PFMigrate. This helps to easily configure an Exchange 2003 server to have all Public Folder instances of an identified Exchange 5.5. After the public folder contents have replicated to the Exchange 2003 server, the tool removes the public folder instances from Exchange5.5. Another improvement in the Exchange 2003 public folder architecture allows any public folder to act as a primary replica, so any public folder can be removed from the replica list.

10. Outlook Via the Internet
Outlook 2003 can now access Exchange 2003 from the Internet over HTTP. This isn’t as much a function of Exchange 2003 as it is a feature of Windows 2003. Windows 2003 has an RPC over HTTP service that takes RPCs from within HTTP and passes them along to their destination, in this case, an Exchange 2003 server. Outlook 2003, when configured to use RPC over HTTP, encapsulates RPC into HTTP and connects to a URL configured in the Outlook profile.

This is exciting for mobile users that don’t need Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections, but still have to get their e-mail and work offline. It’s ideal for, say, a salesperson who travels and needs to work with e-mail offline using the Outlook 2003 local mailbox copy but doesn’t need access to other internal corporate resources when out of the office. Users can connect from any Internet connection to their Exchange server and work online, upload or download messages, and take those messages with them.

11. Outlook Web Access (OWA)
This Exchange feature continues to improve. The most obvious change is the user interface: OWA now looks very similar to Outlook 2003 (see Figure 2). With both clients up, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two without looking closely. Beyond the new look and feel, OWA has several added features. Some of the best ones are listed in Table 1.

Outlook vs. OWA
Figure 2. Using Outlook Web Access in Exchange 2003 isn’t much different than using Outlook. (Click image to view larger version.)

12. Exchange ActiveSync
With Pocket PC 2002 device support, and the Exchange ActiveSync feature available with Exchange 2003, users are able to synchronize their Exchange information to their mobile devices over a network connection. And wireless devices with a secure connection are able to synchronize with Exchange 2003 information. No longer do you have to dock your mobile device with your PC; now you can do it across a wireless network. Coupled with a VPN connection from your Pocket PC device, you can even synchronize over the Internet.

13. Always-Up-To-Date
The combination of wireless support for ActiveSync in Windows Mobile 2003 (PocketPC 2003) and a VPN supports an always-up-to-date feature of Exchange as well. With always-up-to-date, Windows Mobile 2003 devices can periodically synchronize with the Exchange 2003. This service requires a third-party tool to be configured on your Exchange 2003 server. With the always-up-to-date feature enabled, the Exchange server sends a message to the mobile device when a new message arrives. If the mobile device is on and it receives the message, the mobile device then synchronizes using ActiveSync to synchronize with Exchange.

Table 1. New OWA features
Feature Description

Spelling checker

Messages are checked against a server-based dictionary. You can choose different language dictionaries. The subject line isn’t checked for spelling errors.

Forms-based authentication

Adds a logon page to OWA for choosing Premium or Basic functionality, depending on connection speed. You can also choose a Public or Private computer.

Right-click recipients

Right-click a recipient’s name and have it added to your contacts.

Web Beacon blocking

Web Beacons are used by spammers to determine who’s successfully received a message. You’re given the option of downloading the blocked content if you choose.

Increased security

OWA supports S/MIME, allowing digital signing and encrypting of messages.
Adding Senders or Recipients to Contacts Easily add users in the message to Contacts list with a couple of clicks.
Inbox rules Modify server-side Inbox rules.

Attachment blocking

Can be configured so that all attachments or certain attachments are blocked when using OWA.
Signatures Automatically add signatures to outgoing messages.

Improved performance

Streamlining the logon process, compressions and moving some of the processing to the local computer has increased performance.

Task lists

A task can have a due date, start date, status, priority, percent complete and reminder. Task requests are not supported.

Decision Time
The question all those who currently have Exchange must ask is, “Do these improvements in the product merit an upgrade from our current version?” We believe the answer to this question lies in what version of Exchange you’re using today, or if you require the new services provided by Exchange Server 2003.

If your organization is using Exchange 5.5, and the future of your messaging system is either Exchange 2003 or the next version, the choice is clear—upgrade to Exchange 2003. We’re not saying you should upgrade today, or even this year, but when you’re ready—when your Active Directory is in place, preferably on Windows 2003. The process of migrating from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2003 has been refined, simplified and been in use since the release of Exchange 2000.

The upgrade path to the next version of Exchange is unclear. At this moment, the next full version of Exchange will be built using the Unified Storage Architecture. This architecture is dependent on several other systems outside the control of Exchange. The availability of these systems and what they will look like when released is too far out in the future to depend on.

If your organization is using Exchange 2000, the decision comes down to the improvements and enhancements to Exchange 2003, and the cost vs. benefit of the upgrade. If mobile messaging and Office 2003 isn’t a direction you’re heading, and if other systems provide adequate security and spam control, the benefit may not exceed the cost. However, if the features and improvements in this article provide a compelling case to upgrade, the process of upgrading from Exchange 2000 to Exchange 2003 is a fairly simple one and should be strongly considered.

About the Author

William C. Wade, III, MCSE, has been a networking and systems consultant for over 15 years. As a principal of Wadeware LLC, Bill works closely with Microsoft and other companies on Windows 2003 and Exchange Server 2003 projects. On these subjects, he’s written numerous articles, hands-on-labs, white papers and a couple of books. He can be reached at bill@wadeware.net.

Edgar Brovick, MCP, has a diverse background in development and systems architecture. As a principal of Wadeware LLC, he has worked with small to large companies, designing and implementing Windows and Exchange systems. Ed has published numerous articles, hands-on labs, white papers and a book.

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