In-Depth

Readers Review Exchange Server 2003

In an entirely new approach to product reviews, 13 loyal MCP Magazine readers detail their experiences running Exchange 2003 in production environments. 

Product reviews tend to follow the same mold—bring in some hardware or software, set it up in a lab and have someone pound on it until they decide if it’s any good. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but for the complex and feature-laden Exchange Server 2003, we thought there was a better way.

That’s why MCP Magazine literally broke the product review mold. We created a framework, or set of evaluation criteria, and then interviewed over a dozen readers who shared their real-world experiences. These were all IT professionals running Exchange 2003 in a production environment.

So Many Servers, So Little Time
Microsoft claims that if you shell out the dough for a bunch of Exchange 2003 licenses, you’ll actually save money. And if you architect your network properly, the company is absolutely right.

The biggest area of saving—and headache reduction—is through server consolidation, made possible two ways. Windows Server 2003 offers the ability to do more with each server, especially when compared to NT. Exchange 2003 (and 2000) adds to that the ability to have more than one database (mailbox store) per server. With Exchange 2003, database size is realistically only limited by hardware (with a 16TB upper limit). There can be up to four storage groups and 20 databases per server.

Some users contacted by MCP Magazine back the Microsoft claims. “Together with a domain consolidation (13 NT 4.0 domains, single master domain model consolidated to one single Active Directory domain based on Windows 2003), we’ve been able to limit the number of Exchange mailbox servers to three cluster servers. In the existing environment, based on Exchange 5.5, we used 11 mailbox servers, including four cluster servers (not including servers for dedicated purposes like bridgehead, IMC, etc.). The limited number of Exchange servers will greatly reduce efforts needed for maintenance, including patching, backup, etc. compared to the old infrastructure,” said Patrick Egloff, IT systems engineer working for a large travel company in Switzerland.

Battling Bandwidth
The Outlook client, when working with Exchange 2003 (Outlook 2000 still works with the new Exchange), has improved caching, so there are fewer requests to the server and, thus, less traffic across the network. On the other side, Exchange has more efficient compression, so these same messages are smaller in terms of pure bytes than with previous systems. The MAPI compression has been found to reduce traffic by as much as 70 percent for Pacific Life, according to a case study posted on www.microsoft.com.

The combo means there’s less pressure on IT to regularly boost LAN or even WAN bandwidth. “In our new environment, we use Outlook 2003 in Exchange Cached Mode, [with a] full install on every client. The users seem to be very happy with the new solution, as they no longer experience delays during typing, printing and logon. In addition, we have been able to successfully reduce the traffic used for messaging on the small WAN links,” said Egloff.

Security 101 for Exchange 2003
Microsoft gets mixed security reviews from customers. “[Outlook Web Access] S/MIME integration was an absolute no-brainer. We were already using digital certificates and had public keys integrated into Active Directory, so installing the S/MIME control was the only thing we had to do to enable Signing/Encryption capabilities. Additionally, we store the certificates on USB security key fobs and no additional configuration was necessary. This was very well implemented, a major upgrade,” said Sean Wallbridge, principal consultant/trainer for itgroove limited, a professional services firm in British Columbia.

Not all are so easily impressed. “Security has been enhanced, but I don’t think drastically. One other improvement that is nice is the ability to implement blocking lists. I have done this on just about every deployment. Obviously, it isn’t a total solution to [unsolicited commercial e-mail], but it helps,” said John LeClair, senior systems engineer for Compuquip Technologies, a Florida IT consulting firm.

Security is a problem Microsoft should never stop working on. “I had a lot of issues with being a relay server. I couldn’t find a balance between allowing my Web servers to relay, but no one else’s. It’s not as easy as Microsoft documents make it sound. In a standalone environment it’s very secure,” said Brian Gibson, systems administrator for the UK-based The Q Group, which makes software for the education market.

Storage and Backup Shine
While Microsoft brags about Exchange’s dramatic new storage features, a close look reveals that most of these attributes come from Windows 2003 itself, such as Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS).

“One particularly nice feature is the integration of Exchange 2003 with the Volume Shadow Copy Service of Windows 2003, which allows for huge time saving during backup restores,” said Egloff. “Being able to use [VSS] for Exchange backup is nice, as it allows for backups in almost no time. We decided to use this technology vs. a dedicated, third-party backup agent. We back up the databases via VSS to a local disk and transfer this backup file to our centralized backup solution. Doing so we no longer have to pay for expensive agents (if available at all) and can use all the official backup and restore guidelines from Microsoft,” he added.

Exchange May Never Crash Again
Say the word “Windows” to anyone running older software, and they’ll likely cringe at the memories of crash after crash. And more recent software isn’t immune from the occasional lapse into inoperability. But Exchange 2003 is a far cry from the flaky days of Windows 95, NT 4.0 and the very first release of Exchange.

For instance, improved virtual memory technology reduces the fragmentation that used to regularly bring down earlier Microsoft messaging platforms. And that means the darn thing doesn’t crash so much. “At one point the [Exchange 2003] server had been up for five months, still not having a reboot after installing Exchange and the anti-virus management console—without a single problem, memory leak or any slowdowns at all. I see no reason that a Windows 2003/Exchange 2003 server would ever have to be rebooted under normal operating conditions,” said Eric Phillips, network consultant for LTI Information Technology, a Michigan technology firm.

Read the Full Report
IT folks are a savvy lot, and a non-supported platform can be kept running with the occasional application of duct tape. So even for frugal Exchange 5.5 users, Microsoft has to make the new Exchange compelling enough to switch to and stave off the lure of e-mail platforms from other vendors.

We went to the best source we could find—MCP Magazine readers—to see if the Microsoft hype stands up to real user scrutiny.

The full report, from which this article is excerpted, documents reader experiences with Exchange 2003 ROI, bandwidth, performance, server consolidation, mobile access, RPC over HTTP, security, anti-spam functionality, Outlook 2003 and Outlook Web Access, and more. Download your copy at http://mcpmag.com/resources/exchange_reviewed/

Faster Than a Speeding Exchange 2000
IT pros are like sports car nuts—always after the speed. In the case of Exchange 2003, Microsoft delivers. While the improved virtual memory reduces crashes, it’s also designed to increase performance by making variable memory requests rather than swapping fixed values and turns many small memory requests into larger, more efficient blocks.

The result is snappier software. “On the same hardware, Windows 2003/ Exchange 2003 appeared to perform about 30-percent faster and booted 200 percent faster,” said itgroove’s Wallbridge.

The Web client also satisfies sub-millisecond speed junkies. “OWA performance improvements were noticeable immediately. Trimming of variables, etc. all led to much better performance, even over slow links,” said Wallbridge.

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.

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