No easy path to improved Exchange

SAN FRANCISCO (10/10/2003) - The exchange e-mail server is a good barometer of Microsoft Corp.'s strengths and weaknesses. After all, Windows NT had to adapt the Exchange directory service for its own use back in the mid-1990s, and after the release of Windows 2000 and the admittedly more robust AD (Active Directory), many customers decided to stick with existing Exchange 5.x installations instead of upgrading to Exchange 2000, which required Windows 2000 and the complexities of AD.

Microsoft has found it so difficult to wean Exchange users from Exchange 5.5 that it pushed the end-of-support date out a year to the end of 2004. It's not hard to understand the reluctance to switch. E-mail is now so critical to corporate life that users would rather do without lights, telephones, or even office space, and IT staffs spend an ever-increasing amount of time on the care and feeding of e-mail systems.

IT executives and managers who remain willing to invest in Exchange will find Exchange Server 2003 goes a long way toward addressing many difficult e-mail system deployment and management issues. After all, it does a good job at handling basic e-mail and collaboration requirements. But getting the most out of the improvements in Exchange will require using Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition as the underlying OS.

Because the Outlook 2003 client is required for features such as client-side caching and RPC over HTTP (reducing the need for dial-in access or VPN support), the complexity of the upgrade path is that much greater. And a final obstacle lies in the snail's pace of updates to the Exchange documentation library -- much of the material simply won't be ready until next spring, including texts on disaster recovery, scalability, and troubleshooting. The latter won't be available before June 2004 if Microsoft's published timetable is accurate.

Into the Exchange Jungle

Armed with deployment and planning guides, I set forth to integrate Exchange Server 2003 into the InfoWorld Test Center's existing Exchange 5.5 environment. After I cleaned up the old Exchange server, the upgrade was fairly smooth.

The two major problems involved modifying my Exchange 5.5 organization name by removing an illicit character and replacing a DLL with cryptography support that wasn't consistent with the rest of the server software. When these minor road bumps (minor, that is, once they were identified, which took awhile) the new Exchange 2003 server was coexisting with the old Exchange 5.5 machine.

Getting to this state of peaceful coexistence took a mixture of command-line utilities, MMC (Microsoft Management Console) snap-ins, and Exchange 2003 setup options. The Exchange setup program's Weblike front end was useful -- with a few illustrations, it would be almost foolproof -- but bouncing between these tools can be dizzying the first few times through the process.

Before installation, I strongly urge performing a dry run or three on a test bed with features similar to the production environment. Undoing an Exchange 2003 install should remove changes to AD and its schema, but that's not the sort of thing upon which to stake one's job, especially in these uncertain times.

Moving my user mailboxes to the new server went without a hitch; I was working within the same Exchange organization structure, so I was able to use Exchange's ordinary management tools. I migrated public and system folders less easily, using a command-line utility to create new replicas of these folders and then delete the originals on the old Exchange server.

Unfortunately, this utility is crude and inflexible -- there's no way to selectively migrate a group of public folders, for example. It gets tougher for Exchange administrators who have to move mailboxes across Exchange organizations; they must replicate mailboxes using yet another tool, and they can't move public or system folders into the new organization at all.

Completing the Exchange 2003 migration was comparatively straightforward: I tweaked a few items through MMC, disabled the old Exchange server, and I had a native-mode Exchange 2003 setup.

Although some of the improvements from Exchange 5.5 -- such as unified user and group management through the AD tools -- were introduced in Exchange 2000, management is greatly improved overall from either previous release. Clustering, performance, and scalability are all significantly enhanced from Exchange 2000, and the other improvements I took note of in the Exchange 2003 beta make this a compelling upgrade for those who accept the challenge.

End Justifies the Means?

No question about it: Exchange Server 2003 is a vast improvement from previous versions. However, IT departments that haven't yet begun replacing Exchange 5.5 with Exchange 2000 face a difficult task in adopting Exchange 2003. And they have little more than a year to get under way before Microsoft starts winding down Exchange 5.5 support.

My advice to shops that undertake a migration may be obvious -- have plenty of tested backups of the mail servers and take advantage of three-day weekends -- but I speak from painful, or at least uncomfortable, experience.

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