Not Your Father's E-mail Server

Exchange 2000 Server, the successor to Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange Server 5.5, offers new bells and whistles that take the application well beyond its e-mail roots. It also offers many meat-and-potatoes improvements that administrators have been requesting. But Exchange 2000 is also not your typical upgrade. This is the first major application from Microsoft that requires Active Directory (AD) - in other words, you can't implement Exchange 2000 until you upgrade all of your Exchange servers to Windows 2000 and create an organizationwide AD structure. This is, in fact, a daunting task that's been slowing down many Windows 2000 Server implementations.

In short, Exchange 2000 Server is a major infrastructure upgrade that will take time to plan and implement correctly.

"What people have to do to move to Exchange 2000 is a lot of work," says Joyce Graff, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc. "If you don't have the whole top-to-bottom Microsoft solution, you don't feel all the benefits." But, she adds, "I think this will be one of the drivers for [organizations to migrate to] Windows 2000."

Exchange now includes collaborative features such as instant messaging and the Web Storage System - a universal, fully indexed container for e-mail message folders and Microsoft Office documents that users can access through Windows Explorer, a Web browser or an Outlook client. And a new add-on, Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server, adds application sharing and multicast videoconferencing services.

E-mail improvements include support for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions content and Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP) routing, as well as the ability to consolidate routing groups and delegate administrative tasks at a more granular level than Exchange 5.5 supports. Administrators can now chop up those ever-expanding message databases into smaller, more manageable ones. And enhanced clustering support enables both server consolidation and improved fault tolerance.

Reasons to Migrate

One benefit of migrating to Exchange 2000 is server consolidation.

"In our larger locations, where we have 2,000 or more people, we think we'll win from the consolidation. They will have less servers to administer," says Vicki Fredrick, IT director at Aventis Pharmaceuticals Inc. But, she warns, "we're not ever going to sell this purely on administration. We're selling it as an integrated platform."

Bridgewater, N.J.-based Aventis has 50,000 e-mail users on 181 Exchange 5.5 servers in 100 locations worldwide. In the pilot phase of Aventis' migration to Exchange 2000 at its Kansas City, Mo., offices, the company consolidated 4,500 Exchange 5.5 users on nine servers onto just two Exchange 2000 servers.

"You couldn't do this under the previous architecture of Exchange," says Henry Creagh, a consultant at Aventis. "The main reason why most places have so many Exchange servers is because they didn't want their Exchange database that had all the user mail to get too large. [If it did,] they couldn't back it up and restore it to meet their service-level agreements," he adds.

And there was another incentive to keep databases small, says Graff: Exchange 5.5 databases larger than 60GB have experienced reliability problems.

And since Exchange 5.5 only supported one database per server, the number of databases - and thus, of servers - multiplied. Exchange 2000 can host up to 20 message databases on one server. This results in smaller databases with faster backup and restoration times, Creagh says - and fewer servers.

"You're saving [on] floor space in the data center, licensing [and] the number of servers you'll ever have to put a service pack to or hot-fix. It's less to watch, less to pay for," he says.

Graff says she agrees that multiple message databases help administrators get around this problem, but she warns that managing those databases becomes more complex. "That's one of the things that's making people think," she says.

Dan Guttman, manager of messaging technology and operational systems at The MTVi Group Inc., the online arm of New York-based MTV Networks, says the added fault tolerance provided by Exchange 2000's active-active clustering made the transition worthwhile. MTVi consolidated 850 users attached to Exchange 5.5 servers in three sites onto two clustered Exchange 2000 servers.

At MTVi, "there was zero tolerance for lack of mail flow," Guttman says. Active-active clustering allows services to be active on both cluster members, so each can host mailboxes during normal operation. When one server fails, the other automatically takes over the failed server's mailboxes. Guttman says that during testing, when beta versions of Exchange 2000 failed, "users never knew there were problems."

Graff says she sees clustering as a step forward but cautions that it's still not transparent. The fail-over process may take 10 to 30 minutes, and users will have to log back in, she says.

One reason not to proceed right away with an upgrade is because end users will see little benefit, says Graff. "What [Microsoft] has done is work a lot on the plumbing, but they're not the kinds of things that end users will appreciate out of the box," she says.

One thing that's missing, for example, is a new desktop client. "The client/server interaction between Outlook and Exchange does not significantly improve until Office 10," the current name for the successor to the Office 2000 suite, which is due to ship later this year, says Graff. But she says she does see one user benefit: The new Outlook Web Access (OWA) client, which allows users to access their Exchange e-mail through a browser, is a significant improvement for users, and it allows administrators to support more OWA users on fewer dedicated front-end OWA servers.

Finally, the newly minted collaborative features in Exchange 2000 are limited. "The functionality is very light and not well integrated," Graff says. "Microsoft has made strides, but [it's] still about a year and a half behind [Lotus Notes]." And applications that leverage these features have yet to arrive, which means end users will see little benefit today, she adds.

The Infrastructure Challenge

Perhaps the biggest challenge in installing Exchange 2000 is the infrastructure changes that are required. The Windows 2000 AD replaces Exchange 5.5 as a repository for user account attributes and information. So at a minimum, administrators must upgrade all Exchange 5.5 servers to Windows 2000 and install at least one Windows 2000 server on which to create an AD structure.

"Most people are not going to do this over a short period of time," says Graff.

Aventis decided to upgrade its Windows NT domain controllers first. "We knew we wanted to move to Exchange 2000, so we knew we had to start planning our Windows 2000 deployment," says Fredrick.

MTVi upgraded its print servers and Exchange servers, but it didn't have to worry about its Unix-based file services, Guttman says.

Aventis began upgrading its Windows NT domain controllers to Windows 2000 and creating an AD for its 50,000 users last February; it finished on May 2. Next, Aventis used Exchange 2000's Active Directory Connector (ADC), a utility that imports the Exchange 5.5 user account attributes and the public folder structure into AD and maintains ongoing "connection agreements" between AD and Exchange 5.5 directories to keep them synchronized.

Fredrick stresses the importance of having a fully populated directory before using ADC. "If you don't have your [AD] accounts there, you don't have anything to populate," she says.

Weighing Your Options

That's true, but you don't have to fully deploy AD and Windows 2000 to install Exchange 2000, claims Ken Ewert, program manager at Microsoft. For Windows NT 4 users for whom no AD account exists, the ADC puts a disabled "placeholder account" into the AD to hold the user's Exchange account information, he says. In this way, the Windows NT/Exchange 5.5 users "have a presence on each location," and that presence "is kept in sync with the ADC," he says.

But, he adds, "you will have duplicate accounts for those . . . users," and when you're ready to migrate those Windows NT user accounts to Windows 2000, you must run a utility to merge the new migrated AD account and the placeholder account.

Both Aventis and MTVi avoided this by upgrading their domain controllers to Windows 2000 and creating and populating a complete AD structure beforehand. Besides, says Creagh, "if you do it the other way, you'll lose the current [Windows user account] passwords. In an enterprise company, that's not acceptable."

At Aventis, getting the new address book clean and stable was a big effort. "We spent that week just checking our directory," Creagh says. One problem was the existence of inactive mailboxes and multiple mailboxes associated with a single user account. When the ADC finds multiple mailboxes for one user account, it takes in the first one and discards the others, he says. "You need to go through and tag the ones that shouldn't be matched up," he says. Creagh suggests that administrators weed out these mailboxes before running the ADC to save time.

About a week after completing the directory, Aventis set up its first Exchange 2000 server.

Both MTVi and Aventis used new server hardware and moved mailboxes over from the existing mail servers. "This is not an in-place upgrade; you migrate," says Gartner's Graff. "You build a parallel system, and you migrate these users from the Exchange 5.5 tower to the Exchange 2000 tower."

Aventis also created a test system that mirrored the production environment before going live. "In years past, we'd have a lab but install everything clean," Creagh says. "Don't generate [test] data; use your production data, and you'll be surprised what you learn from it."

MTVi and Aventis are both still running Exchange 2000 in parallel with Exchange 5.5 servers. In this mixed-mode environment, says Creagh, you're stuck with remote procedure call communication between the new and old routing groups rather than the faster, industry-standard SMTP. And you can't separate routing groups from administrative groups - a critical feature if, like at Aventis, you want to centralize control of routing groups but delegate other administrative functions within a large organization. "We don't want the local administrators messing around with the routing," Creagh says.

"We're not going to realize the full impact of this until we're further down on our migration," Fredrick acknowledges. And in a company the size of Aventis, that takes time. "It will probably [take] the next two years to have [all 50,000 users] migrated," she says.

Both Aventis and MTVi have also set up new Exchange features, such as instant messaging, conferencing and OWA, on separate servers. But Aventis is still focused on getting the basic Exchange functions in place. "If you don't start in a methodical order, you're going to end up with a mess," warns Fredrick, noting that OWA and instant messaging require deploying new desktop client software and browsers.

Aventis and MTVi both say they're impressed with the value of instant messaging. But the inability of Exchange's instant messaging to work with other messaging systems is a problem for business-to-business communications, says Graff.

"This is one of the biggest mistakes Microsoft is making. By stressing the need for homogeneity, they're missing the point," she says. And ironically, while the NT and Exchange directories are now integrated into AD, instant messaging isn't. It uses a different client and directory, Graff says, so user information must be entered and managed separately.

IT managers considering a move to Exchange 2000 should plan carefully and move slowly, current users say. "My advice is to plan out your Active Directory well in advance, create a test environment and put a good deal of thought into it," says MTVi's Guttman.

Fredrick says she agrees: "You have to look at the big picture. This is an architectural change."

Graff suggests waiting. "It's not going to be easy to implement, and end users aren't going to feel the benefits. We've suggested that people hold off until the middle of 2001," when Office 10 and the new Outlook client become available, she says.

But Guttman says he thinks the back-end benefits are compelling. "The simplification of administration for Active Directory is worth it," he says. "It actually decreased administrative costs for us."

Fredrick stresses that it's a big project.

"If you really want to take advantage of all the components, you can't leave anything out," she says. "You can't leave security out. You can't leave the network out. You can't leave the desktop out. You've got to look at it as a complete platform, and that scares a lot of people."

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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