REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 22, 2004 — Administering a large corporate Microsoft Exchange Server environment is an important and sometimes challenging job. With the release of Microsoft Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer Tool, network administrators now have an advanced new utility to help maintain the health and optimal performance of a Microsoft Exchange Server. The Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer encodes the top Microsoft Exchange Server product support issues and resolutions into a software tool that can be run as part of an automated network “health check” or a troubleshooting test to identify and diagnose configuration problems in the network. The no-cost tool helps customers to more easily manage and maximize performance in existing Exchange deployments.
“I like to think of the Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer as a Microsoft-engineer-in-a-box,” says Paul Bowden, program manager for Exchange Server Development at Microsoft. “The tool represents an encoding of Microsoft’s Knowledge Base about Microsoft Exchange Server in an automated, continually-updated format that makes it easy for customers to monitor and optimize their network infrastructure.”
The Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer incorporates the accumulated experience that Microsoft engineers have gleaned from working with Microsoft’s own IT infrastructure and from working with customers’ Exchange Server topologies. It also addresses specific issues that come up most often during customer-initiated sessions with Microsoft Customer Service and Support (CSS) — for instance, how to optimize a service for maximum scalability or availability — and features automatic access to an always-current Help file that contains the latest issue analyses and configuration best practices.
“Our customers will realize immediate value from the Exchange Best Practices Analyzer tool, as it is designed to help them to better manage and diagnose the needs unique to their environment from a central location,” says Paul Flessner, senior vice president of Server Applications at Microsoft. “Like the SQL Server 2000 Best Practices Analyzer released earlier this year, which has already obtained more than 45,000 customer downloads, the Exchange Best Practices Analyzer is an early deliverable in the vision set forth with the Windows Server System Common Engineering Roadmap.”
In his previous position at Microsoft, Bowden worked closely for five years with Microsoft Exchange Server customers. It became clear to him that network administrators were being asked to keep their networks running and up-to-date with ever fewer resources. “Administrators just don’t have time to keep up with all the documentation and best practices guidelines that Microsoft produces,” he says. Bowden and a core group of senior developers set out to create a new and better way to deliver product support information and diagnostic tools.
The result is the Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer. “Administrators need to have product support information focused on what is relevant for their particular deployment and delivered with a clear sense of urgency if there are configuration issues that require immediate attention,” says Bowden. “By encoding all the information from white papers and product documentation and all the knowledge that resides in people’s heads into a set of software rules in the Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer, we are able to give our customers an automated tool that helps test and monitor Exchange deployments and provide analysis of the issues it finds.”
The analyzer has already proved very effective for organizations involved in preliminary deployments. “The tool gives us the ability to look at our entire organization in one well structured holistic view and allows us to see how we compare against best practices,” said Jim Marotta, collaborative architect at a large national insurance agency. “This capability helps us ensure a consistent and effective enterprise configuration.”
The Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer became available as a no-charge download from http://www.microsoft.com/exchange/downloads on Sept. 21, 2004.
How the Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer Works
The Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer represents the individual knowledge of Microsoft engineers, information about product support issues, and best practices guidelines. This knowledge is transferred into a series of eXtensible Markup Language (XML) rules that can be run against deployments of Microsoft Exchange to deliver a thorough health and status check on the system — perhaps exposing hidden configuration problems that will become critical issues later or identifying errors that can be more easily corrected now than later. The tool operates from a remote workstation — it is not necessary to load the analyzer software onto the Exchange server itself.
“One of the most important features of the tool is its ability to identify potential time bombs,” says Bowden. These can be simple misconfigurations — an Exchange deployment may contain over 1,000 different registry parameters and options that can each change how the system functions — or they may be caused when administrators forget to log changes they make to individual machines. “In these cases, things may be working fine now,” says Bowden, “but if you add another 100 users to the server, or change one of the variables, then the system could go very sour. The Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer is good at checking for things that may not be issues now, but might be three months from now.”
When the Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer sets out to analyze a Microsoft Exchange Server environment, it collects over 1,200 different data points from each server. Then, roughly 800 analysis rules are applied to these data points to determine the health or compliance of the network. Depending on the results of the analysis, the tool returns a report that indicates an error, a warning or a non-default result. For each of these responses, the tool will provide a short piece of text that explains what it has found, and that links to further information on the Exchange TechCenter on the Microsoft TechNet Web site. There, detailed technical information explains what issues the tool has identified, along with step-by-step suggestions to resolve the problem.
Screenshots show how the tool scans, lists configuration issues and creates Best Practices reports.
“One of the unique aspects of the tool is how we update it,” says Bowden. “The normal problem with a support tool is that it needs to be refined as the information behind it improves. Every week, perhaps every day, we learn something new about what customers are doing with Exchange, or we have new information or new features to convey.”
To keep the tool current, it self-updates each time it runs. Each time a customer runs the tool, it automatically queries the Microsoft Web site to determine if a new version of the XML Help file exists. If so, the customer can run the new file against the deployment, ensuring that any new information or updates are applied.
The tool can also be used to remotely document the design and configuration of an Exchange topology. This data can be used to track the history of a deployment or provide a quick-start to administrators and product support staff who need to analyze the history and configuration of an unfamiliar deployment. “Large deployments of Exchange can contain hundreds of individual servers, and trying to keep track of all those server configurations is quite a challenge” says Bowden. “Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer can collect the configuration information remotely and then place it in a single repository where it can serve as a historic snapshot of the Exchange environment.”
This same audit of the Exchange platform can serve to validate a deployment or be used to report problems to a support engineer.
Knowledge from Partners Extends Tool’s Reach Across Entire Exchange Platform
The analyzer also incorporates rules and information from top software vendors to provide an end-to-end analysis of the complete Exchange environment. “Customers usually don’t run Exchange solutions without third-party software — for instance, just about everyone runs anti-virus software on top of Exchange,” says Bowden. “If there are problems, it can be very difficult to determine the root cause because the issue may originate with the Microsoft software or with the third-party software.” The tool can extend beyond Exchange itself and run checks on software sitting on top of Exchange to determine if it is correctly or optimally configured. Similarly, a number of leading server hardware manufacturers have also provided input to the Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer, enabling the tool to evaluate system hardware and firmware for configuration errors.
Trend Micro, a global leader in network antivirus and Internet content security software and services, contributed their own knowledge and development best practices to the design of Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer. According to Howard Price, Global Product Manager at Trend Micro, the company became involved after Bowden described the tool and asked them to contribute to the knowledge base and rules set. “One of the biggest values of the tool is that it does not just focus on the Microsoft Exchange Server software, it focuses on the entire platform — the hardware, the disk subsystem, the OS, the network and the third-party pieces — such as our product, ScanMail for Exchange — that are important for creating an entire Exchange solution.”
Microsoft asked Trend Micro’s research and development team and customer support group to contribute information to the tool. “These are the people who have all the knowledge in their heads and on their online systems,” says Price. “They know about the problems that customers have had and how to resolve them, and also the set of best practices about how to best configure and deploy our product. Our goal was to extract that information and convert it into a rules set that Microsoft could use to help build the tool.”
For instance, if a customer configures more than a certain number of e-mail boxes on ScanMail for Exchange, there is a set of tunings for the software that can help improve its performance as part of the Exchange platform. This kind of information and best-practices knowledge was passed to Microsoft, and became incorporated into the tool.
“Our Knowledge Base is always a work in progress,” says Price. “We are always adding new information and as new issues surface, we’ll put them in the Knowledge Base, which we share with Microsoft. Because of the dynamic way the rules are downloaded every time the tool is run, the customer will always have the benefit of our latest information.
“We have an ongoing relationship with Microsoft,” says Price, “and as our relationship continues and we continue to share knowledge, the value of the tool increases.”
“With the automatic update feature,” says Bowden, “customers don’t have to go to keep track of updates and guidelines on their own — the Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer will do it for them. That removes a huge headache for customers at the same time it improves the performance of the entire Exchange platform.”