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Microsoft Releases Best Practices Tool for Exchange

About a year after releasing Exchange Server 2003, Microsoft rolled out a free, automated best practice tool to help IT get the most out of the e-mail server and its two predecessors -- Exchange 2000 and Exchange 5.5.

"We've developed a tool that basically gives them automated guidance. It's like a Microsoft engineer in a box," says Warren Ashton, group product manager for the Exchange Server Business Group.

The Exchange Best Practices Analyzer Tool is designed to scan one or all of the Exchange servers in an environment, collect 1,200 data points from each server and compare their settings against a database of 800 best-practice rules. It will also be possible to use the Exchange BPA tool to compare the configuration of a group of servers against a baseline server in your environment that you know is set up properly.

The agent-less tool installs on an administrator's Windows 2000 or Windows XP workstation, although it can also be installed on an Exchange server. According to Paul Bowden, program manager for Exchange Server Development, scanning an individual server takes about five minutes. The multi-threaded tool can scan up to 50 servers at a time. In massive environments, the tool obviously won't be able to race through 50 servers at once in five minutes. Bowden says the largest production run at an early adopter customer was about 400 servers, and the scan took a little over six hours. According to Microsoft, customers and Microsoft's own IT department haven't noticed a performance impact to production environments while running the scans.

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When it's done collecting information, the tool presents what it has found in a "Best Practices Report." Administrators can view it first as a Critical Issues List to filter it down to the worst problems. Other views include a Full Issues List and a Detailed List. Drilling down on each issue opens a report page describing what the tool has discovered with links to Webcasts, third-party information and Knowledge Base articles. The tool's best practice database isn't limited to Microsoft product recommendations. It also includes rules from HP, Dell, Trend Micro, Symantec, Sybari and McAfee.

"How much time does this really save an Exchange administrator? The scan takes about five minutes. Going out and finding all this stuff manually could take several days," Bowden says.

The Microsoft Download Center is littered with useful tools that Microsoft posts and never revisits, but this won't be one of those. Microsoft plans to update the best practices database every two weeks, and the tool will check for new rules every time it starts up.

It's also a tool Microsoft is building into its own support operation. "Our product support team is fully trained on this now and are fully engaged in using this to help customers," Ashton says. On the one hand, the tool helps customers help themselves, Ashton says. On the other side, the customer can export the support file generated by the tool to Microsoft's Product Support Services for quicker resolution.

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The Microsoft Exchange Center of Excellence, which is a task force inside Microsoft aimed at helping customers get the most out of their Exchange deployments, is currently evangelizing the Exchange BPA tool, which was used by about 200 customers before its release.

Greg Winston, an architect with the Exchange Center of Excellence, recommends a three-prong approach to taking advantage of the tool. "Right away, I'd run it in its raw-analysis mode. It would examine every Exchange server in your enterprise and it would check all your configuration settings. I would definitely run that periodically, maybe monthly," Winston says. "Then I'd use the tool in an environment where you have an array of servers all providing the same function, say Web mail servers, and they should all be exactly the same. That's where the baseline [feature] comes in. The third way, when you do have a problem, a server's not acting properly, you can select that one machine and say, 'Interrogate it.' That information is likely to be used by Product Support Services."

The tool is available here:
www.microsoft.com/exchange/downloads .

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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