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-- by Art Brieva
When WINDOWS Magazine staffers aren't busy evaluating products in WinLab, we typically spend our "free" time installing next-generation technology on our own production network. Our latest challenge: deploying Microsoft Exchange Server 5.0 as a replacement for our aging e-mail system, Microsoft Mail for PC Networks.
Exchange Server promised better scalability and manageability than MS Mail, and tight integration with our growing Windows NT environment. Each day, more than 4,000 messages travel across WINDOWS Magazine's editorial network, which comprises 60 local and remote PCs. Like most organizations that thrive on information dissemination, we can't live without e-mail.
Our move to Exchange Server had to be flawless and transparent to our editorial staff, as well as more than 1,400 employees at our publisher, CMP Media. We had to ensure that e-mail moved seamlessly between Exchange Server and CMP's own MS Mail system.
We began building our new e-mail system in December by installing a beta release of Exchange Server 4.5 (later renamed Exchange Server 5.0) on a Compaq ProLiant 1500 server equipped with a 133MHz Pentium processor and 128MB of RAM. (We don't recommend that businesses migrate to beta software, but we decided to push ahead with our own migration because Exchange appeared stable.) After building and evaluating our Exchange server for several weeks, we upgraded to Exchange Server 5.0 Release Candidate 1. In February, after a few more weeks of evaluation, we moved about half of our 60 staff members to Exchange; the remaining MS Mail users were switched to Exchange in March. In April, we upgraded our mail server to the final Exchange Server 5.0 release. It included new HTTP support for checking e-mail via a Web browser.
For the most part, Exchange is great for the folks who work online in our main editorial office. Our new SMTP mail server delivers and sends Internet mail very quickly. In fact, some messages arrive in a recipient's inbox almost instantaneously. Our editorial staff also embraced several of Exchange Server's niftier features, including Out of Office Assistant. Prior to vacations or business trips, you can activate this feature so that Exchange sends a generic reply message (like "I am out of the office until next week") to anyone who messages you.
Like any major migration, we encountered several big bumps in our move to Exchange Server. For instance, CMP employees often had e-mail bounce back to them after trying to message WINDOWS Magazine editors. This problem was easily resolved by instructing CMP employees to remove WINDOWS Magazine editor names from their MS Mail Personal Address Book (PAB). The PAB contained our magazine's old post office location, rather than new information related to Exchange. Once a name is removed from the PAB, the address is picked up from the Global Address List.
Perhaps worst of all, Exchange offers poor remote-messaging capabilities. Our remote folks are downright disappointed with it. We talked them through the migration-an extremely time-consuming process that included configuring the Exchange client and moving existing mail to the Exchange Server database. Next, the server data needed to be synchronized with each user's remote-mail file. It took several hours for just one user to be moved over. For large corporations with hundreds of remote users, deploying Exchange Server 5.0 could prove very painful.
Exchange Server 5.0 also carries a large overhead for remote users. We're actually paying additional phone line charges since moving to Exchange. Why? For redundancy reasons, each remote user's local mail file (called OST, for Offline STorage file) is synchronized with our server's e-mail database (called the private information store). It takes more than a few minutes to make a PPP connection, log on to the network and synchronize the e-mail. As a result, we ended up with extra phone charges.
We've also witnessed occasional synchronization problems. After working offline with e-mail, one mobile laptop user returned to our office and synchronized with the server. However, the off-line changes were overwritten by older e-mail from the server, rather than vice versa. Microsoft couldn't tell us why.
Remote offline users also can't use some of the features our online folks enjoy. For example, the Out of Office Assistant and Inbox Assistant (automated actions you can apply to incoming messages) are grayed out when you're working offline. Frustrated offline users could toggle to online, but Exchange client works slowly when dialed up over a PPP connection. All too often, the synchronization process fails for no apparent reason, or it just goes on forever.
Our biggest concern, however, involves backing up Exchange Server. It's easy, but all of the user data resides in one massive mail file. If someone needs to retrieve an urgent e-mail from last month that was accidentally deleted, we have to restore Exchange Server to another server, retrieve the month-old e-mail from the mailbox, move it to a Personal STorage (PST) file and then move the PST file to a network drive or local drive. That's a time-consuming process.
Overall, Exchange Server 5.0 is a very stable and fast messaging platform. Unfortunately, Microsoft promised excellent remote capabilities that just haven't materialized yet. If you administer a large network with hundreds of remote users, consider yourself warned.
Microsoft will need to improve Exchange Server's support for remote users if the software is to ever outsell Lotus Notes and Netscape Mail Server.
1. Don't skimp on processing power. At least a 133MHz Intel Pentium processor with 32MB of RAM and 500MB of disk space is necessary for most departmental e-mail systems. The Information Store should be placed on a RAID Array, but the transaction logs should be stored on mirrored disks.
2. Consider using Alpha servers from Digital Equipment Corp. for massive Exchange Server installations. A portion of Digital's internal network currently supports 2,900 Exchange Server users on a dual-processor AlphaServer 2100A with 512MB of RAM. Note that 48MB of RAM and 500MB of disk space are necessary for smaller Exchange Server installations on Alpha.
3. When adding Exchange Server 5.0 to an existing MS-Mail installation, instruct MS-Mail users to remove Exchange Server users from their MS Mail Personal Address Book. This should correct potential messaging problems between the two systems.
4. Microsoft Outlook and Exchange client each use slightly different forms of technology. Switching from Outlook to Exchange client can cause slower performance. A switch form utility from Microsoft, available at http://www.microsoft.com/officefreestuff/outlook/dlpages/switchfm.htm, fixes this problem.
5. For extensive tips, tricks and administration tools, download Microsoft's latest Exchange Resource Kit from http://www.microsoft.com/exchange/tools/borkx86.htm.
Numerous NT-related upgrades are just around the corner. Here's a glimpse at forthcoming enhancements, along with predicted availability.
BackOffice for Small Business: Includes NT Server, Internet Information Server, SQL Server, Exchange Server and Proxy Server. Availability: Q3-97.
Base Camp: Phone book software that eases remote BackOffice access. Q3-97.
Cakewalk: Replicates mainframe databases to SQL Server. Availability unknown.
Cedar: Links Microsoft Transaction Server with IBM Customer Information Control System (CICS). Q3-97.
IIS 4.0: Code-named K2. The next Internet Information Server. It will offer improved installation and administration. Q3-97.
SMS 2.0: Code-named Opal. It will support Microsoft's Zero Administration for Windows initiative, and the Microsoft Management Console.
SQL Server 6.5 Enterprise Edition: Built-in support for Wolfpack clustering. Q3-97.
SQL Server 7.0: Code-named Sphinx. Slated to support dynamic row-level locking, 64-bit computing and enhanced remote access. Q1-98.
Steelhead: NT routing software that directs IP and IPX packets across networks. Q3-97.
Thor: Permits SQL Server users to access host files via OLE-DB. Availability unknown.
Windows NT 4.0 Enterprise Edition: Bundled support for Microsoft Transaction Server and Message Queue Server. Q3-97.
Windows NT 5.0: Offers Active Directory, a distributed file system, Plug and Play, as well as advanced power management. Q1 or Q2-97.
Wolfpack: NT clustering software. Wolfpack, phase one, will support fail-over between two servers. Phase two will support load balancing among four or more servers. Phase one, Q3-97; phase two, Q2-98.