For the love of Exchange…

Someone asked me a little while back why I love Exchange so much.

This was an interesting question, as even though I have worked with Exchange for many years – I had not really considered why I like it so much as a product until that point in time – or indeed that I really “loved it” more than any other software or hardware that I have worked with (Microsoft or otherwise) – in my own minds eye I had merely considered it to be “just something that worked” – or “something that made sense”.

I have been reflecting on the question for quite sometime now (honestly I do have some form of life – but my boss has been encouraging me to be more spiritually reflective on questions which resonate with me), therefore I decided to try to answer the question as a blog post.

I will warn you all in advance that this post will be a ramble, and go on a bit – as a trip down memory lane (well for me anyhow) – so really this is an “interest” piece for folks – rather than something that is going to help you fix a technical problem or revolutionise your career.

For me it all started back to about 1997 when my career really started moving (I can hear some of you snoring already!) – I was not (at the time) the biggest fan of e-Mail – in fact I hated it! My main experiences had been based around POP3, IMAP, and SMTP based on Apple Mac clients with no formal mail server or distribution point on site.

The entire setup was based around local storage of mail items and given that the primary technology was Apple based – the client was not even as advanced as Schedule + was at the time.

I messed around with e-mail (and the legacy protocols) in that job for two years – and unsurprisingly the uptake of e-mail as an effective communications mechanism within the company was very low (there were only about 10 mailboxes for a staff ratio of about 100) – and those 10 mailboxes caused me no end of grief.

The mail accounts were hosted by BT Campus World (wow ~ anyone in the UK remember them?) and the client was something to do with Mozilla and Netscape navigator (it’s all very hazy now – I drank a lot of beer – and went to some wild parties so remembering the actual e-mail client was not high on my list of memorable moments), however despite my lack of enthusiasm – I would admit that it gave me a good understanding of the principles of e-mail and the protocols that were used to send and receive.

Anyhow, after two years I moved jobs to a much bigger organisation (around 1999). The team that I joined was to say the least in a state of flux and the mail administrator had shall we say “left under a cloud”  – I remember being asked “Have you done anything with e-Mail?

Foolishly I said – “yeah, sure” (eager to impress) – to which the reply was – “oh good, over in that dark corner is the ‘mail system’ and your the new admin”. So I bumbled over to the ‘Dark Corner’ and was presented with MSMail!!.

The setup was a core MSMail post office supporting around 360 users – where the “data store” (using the term very loosely) was located on a Old Mitsubishi Shogun server running Novell Netware 3.12 – below, purely for nostalgia is a photo of myself and a very good mate of mine “administering” the “Shogun” [ notice the ruler being used on the keyboard ]-

ModdyAG-Mits

Anyhow – connecting into this primary MSMail post office were a number of MSMail gateways (15 if I recall correctly) which via Modem links (a full 56K!) would accept connections from a further 15 MSMail post offices which were spread around the geographic area.

It was at this point that I learned that if I thought that my experiences of e-mail administration had been painful up until that point – they were about to get worse. I spent the better part of a further two years supporting that MSMail infrastructure (along with Novell in general) travelling the area (around 30 square miles via bus) kicking the system into life as failures were common – very common.

It was inevitable that the decision was taken that Novell and MSMail were not really the way forward and after some very short deliberation we decided that Exchange 5.5 was the way to go (we were already using Schedule + and some Outlook across the estate and we were moving from Novell to Windows NT 4).

This I suppose was really the first time where you could say that “Andy met Sally – erm Exchange”.

I was assigned to a two person team (myself and a fabulous chap called Mahmoud Abu-Wardehpictured above) where we were tasked with migrating the 360 users from MSMail (yes those pesky fecking post offices were going to die) to Exchange 5.5.

At this time, it would be fair to say that Mahmoud was the “brains” behind the migration – or these days I prefer to think of him as more of a technical mentor. However through this process I found a bit of a niche in developing OWA for Exchange 5.5 beyond that of its original capabilities (I wrote a neat little set of ASP pages that replicated the Outlook Global Address List picker as well as customising the whole “look and feel” to suite the organisations branding).

As the project took shape I aided Mahmoud with the migration, but took lead on the development of a number of tools (using Borland Delphi and Object Pascal) which facilitated the mass creation of Windows NT accounts (Shares, NTFS permissions, Logon Scripts, Profiles etc.), as well as the aforementioned customisation of OWA for Exchange 5.5.

I obviously paid a bit of attention to the architectural side of Exchange, as after Mahmoud left (he was a contractor at the time) – I had to DR the Exchange installation a few times onto new hardware, as well as perform the usual housekeeping stuff such as Exchange and NT Service Packs.

As the years went on, an interesting offshoot to this project that came up – as mentioned, Mahmoud and I worked for one department within a company of over 4000 users (at the time). Each department had its own IT team, and IT systems (including mail) – the repercussions of which were that one person could not e-mail another person internally between departments.

There was no real company “Global Address List” or SMTP internet connectivity  – as other departments were using technologies like Beyond Mail (Banyan Vines), Office Power, Exchange 5.5 or MS Mail!

To cut a long story short story (which involved more drink, women and mad nipple tweaking South Africans whom piss on their own washing long storysee below)

The Safa

In 2001 the company had decided that it wanted to centralise its IT function from 5 separate IT departments and systems – into one.

 

This meant that I had to apply for a new role, and I came out the other side as the Infrastructure Manager (pseudo CTO) – and was immediately handed the job of centralising the disparate mail systems and authentication domains into one unified platform.

Having come from a Microsoft background via the migrations from Novell to NT4, and indeed seeing what to me looked like the decline of other vendors (such as Bayan Vines and Novell) products – the natural way forward was to build a centralised infrastructure based upon Active Directory and Exchange Server 2000.

I thought about this proposition for quite a while reading numerous whitepapers and bought a suit (well a shirt and tie) – see below (god I had black hair!!!!)

Me at my desk - back in the day!

The task of unifying the company systems presented me with a unique set of challenges, the desperate infrastructures were not necessarily orientated for co-existence – but part of the remit that I had been given was to maintain services throughout the migration process.

As mentioned in the mix I had Banyan Vines (running Beyond Mail), AIX (running Office Power), two lots of NT4 (running two separate Exchange 5.5 installations) – so as you can imagine the logistics of getting all of those platforms (including users, shared files, mail items, printers, permissions etc) onto a central, unified directory and mail infrastructure and keep it seamless was going to be difficult.

Again cutting a very long story short (as the actual details of what I did in the end to get these systems all into one place, would take forever to explain) needless to say, 6 months later the project was completed (on time and to budget) – the key thing that I had discovered during the migrations was how versatile and configurable both Exchange (2000) and Active Directory were even at that stage of their development.New Exchange 2000 Servers ~ Circa 2001

When I say configurable, I mean it was amazing what you could accomplish by understanding the schema and associated ADSI properties of objects in AD and then apply a little scripting knowledge.

I was also in complete awe of how powerful both products were, in particular Exchange 2000 as through its feature set I was able to bring to the business not only a state of the art and resilient mail infrastructure, but added benefits such as really usable web client (in comparison to OWA in 5.5).

The whole product just oozed scalability and at the time it seemed that I would learn something new and cool every day; as I lavished loads of attention on the entire environment.

As the years passed, Exchange upgrades came into the mix, I took the environment from 2000 (both AD and Exchange to 2003) and eventually, just before I left the company in 2010 Exchange 2007 (based on a full CCR implementation).

What continued to strike me as the versions developed was how well the product evolved to provide more “killer” features to the business and to the admins – for example;

Between Exchange 2000 – 2003

  • IMGP0273Improved and usable clustering capability (without requiring a PhD in particle physics)
  • Workable and integrated implementation of Active Sync
  • Much improved OWA experience
  • Better Management Tools
  • Larger Database sizes for the Standard edition

The whole product set was growing up.  It was around 2005 that I decided that I wanted to begin to write about my experiences with Exchange as well as participate more in the online forums; passing on what knowledge that I had – it was at this point where I completely fell for Exchange Server.

The Exchange community is one of the most vibrant a giving on the web, and for want of a better term an entire online nation of people whom I could learn from, share tips with and get a better understanding of the entire product. Sites like MSExchange.org and the Microsoft Exchange product team blog were (and still are) required reading.

It also amazed me that via the Exchange Team’s blog, you could actually enter into dialog with the development team on a 1-1 basis. It did not matter if you were an MVP, MCM, MCP, MCSE etc. they would speak with you directly to get your feedback.

In around 2005 I started telnetport25.blogspot.com (now defunct) which was my first foray into blogging about anything, but I saw it as a natural extension to my participation in the technical community – and it gave me a voice where I could share my own thoughts, experiences in my own words. The idea of blogspot evolved through to telnetport25.wordpress.com (also now defunct) to what it is today www.telnetport25.com .

In 2009 the community bestowed the distinct honour of becoming an Exchange MVP, where I was re-awarded for the 2010 and 2011 cycles.

In the 14 years that I have been working with E-mail it has become an absolutely essential part of almost all organisations and is a very long way from the 10 accounts that I was in charge of in 1997.

I have now worked on Exchange and Directory implementations of between 5000 – 15,000 seats as well as advised on the architectural side of implementations totalling hundreds of thousands of users, and what never ceases to amaze me is the amount that I still learn every day – not just from the product, but from other people whom are as enthusiastic as I am.

So, to finish – why do I love Exchange Server?

I guess it is because I will never be a master of it, I will always be learning something new – and the way that I do something today, will be different to how I do the same task in 4 months time!. I get to learn from others, and get a grasp of new technologies as they come along.

For example; these days if you are an Exchange admin at any level – you don’t just need to understand Exchange itself – you need to know about Active Directory, Powershell, DNS, IP, SMTP, POP3, IMAP, Telephony, Routing, SAN’s, RAID, Legal Compliance, Effective Systems monitoring – I could go on.

The key point is, that Exchange makes you learn and evolve in your career and by definition does not allow you as a technical professional to become ‘pigeon holed’ in one technology.

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