Exchange Resource Mailboxes

Microsoft have long been threatening to remove Public Folders from Exchange and have been deprecating their use with every iteration of the product. Typically, here at Newcastle University, users have requested Public Folders to keep calendars of meeting rooms. Although the Public Folders are easy to set up and manage, they don’t really work too well. Checking availability and the logistics of organising the time with the Public Folder calendar alongside personal calendars is often a complicated and laborious affair.

Using Outlook 2007 and Exchange 2007, the creation of dedicated Resource Mailboxes became a much simpler process and more user friendly. To fall in line with Microsoft’s deprecation of Public Folders, we are keen to have people to move their Public Folder calendars into Resource Mailboxes. The set-up and maintenance of the Resource Mailboxes is best suited to a School Computing Officer or if not available a dedicated super-user.

The resource mailbox is very similar to a standard mailbox however does include some extra options to allow for automated responses and resource dedicated configuration.

Although the Resource Mailboxes still work with Outlook 2003, the checking of availability and the manner in which to find the resource mailboxes is slightly more complicated.

I’ve recently drawn up some documentation for Computing Officers with regards to the configuration of Resource Mailboxes and also for end-users for how you would use them in daily operation.

Resource Mailbox Configuration

Using Resource Mailboxes

We’ve been using Resource Mailboxes internally within ISS for a little while now and have also introduced the service for the Student Interaction element of King’s Gate and parts of the Robinson Library. It is to note that this system is not a competitor for Syllabus Plus and our in-house timetabling services, but to be used as a supplement so that users can organise small meetings within their school/service.

Exchange Problems

Last week, we were unfortunate to have a major problem with our Exchange 2007 service. The server process (store.exe) that runs the mailboxes was crashing every 5 minutes or so. As the process that was failing is fundamental to the service working, it was important to try and diagnose the issue as quickly as possible.

The most difficult part of this diagnosis was that the error was so generic and wasn’t providing any relevant information as to what to look at. Exchange is a complicated and awkward piece of software at the best of times, so the problem was compounded by unsatisfactory logging of what was happening.

We were able to determine that the problem happened on both nodes of a cluster, so it looked likely that it was related to the database or even at a more granular level.

When dismounting databases to try and narrow down the issue, we noticed that when one particular database was dismounted that the problem went away. Sadly this meant a significant amount of downtime for the mailboxes on this affected database, particularly as we needed to obtain diagnostic information for Microsoft to investigate the problem, as it’s a fault that isn’t documented anywhere.

We narrowed down the problem to when a particular message (that was queued on one of our Hub Transport Servers) was trying to be delivered that the mailbox server crashed. We deleted the item from the queue and everything started to work OK. It wasn’t long before the problem reoccurred. We could then correlate (using the wonderful tool that is Powershell) that the second message that was causing a problem was scheduled to be delivered to the same mailbox as the first.

This indicated that the problem was common to one mailbox. We isolated that mailbox away from our production server to provide some stability to the thousands of other users that have mailboxes residing there. Once that mailbox was moved, the other mailboxes were fine, so it seemed as if the problem was really narrowed down.

We could reproduce the crash by replaying the problem message into the test system, so we were now at the stage where we could try and determine what it was about these two messages that caused the problem.

The problem seemed to be caused by some fault in a user’s rules. We had fortunately found the needle in the haystack and at the same time we were able to hopefully provide enough diagnostic information to Microsoft so they can thoroughly investigate why a problem with one user’s rules was enough to crash the entire server. That really is a big failing of Exchange.

One issue we noted was the user who had the problem mailbox was exclusively using Outlook 2003. If the user had moved to Outlook 2007, the problem would have been somewhat alleviated. Outlook 2007 alters the rules format.

It was an incredibly stressful couple of days and underlined the fact that email is a business critical system. We are still waiting to hear back from Microsoft, but should the problem reoccur, we should be much quicker in being able to diagnose the fault.

How Item Count Impacts Outlook Performance

Apologies for the dry nature of this blog post, but I thought it important to give some background on why Outlook and more importantly Exchange often suffer performance issues. One of the main causes of poor performance is a user having high item counts in ‘Critical Path’ Outlook Folders and how Exchange deals with that.

Microsoft’s recommendations for Exchange 2007 are as follows:

“Ideally, it is best to keep the Inbox and Sent Items folders less than 20,000 items, and the Contacts and Calendar item counts less than 5,000. Even when maintaining item counts that are at or under the recommended maximum values, there are some operations which may still take noticeable time (usually this is approximately one minute). These operations include new sort orders and selecting folders for the first time. First time views of a folder can take even more time to generate the view. High item counts in critical path folders have an adverse effect on server performance because they are the most frequently accessed folders in a user’s mailbox. Other folders, especially custom folders that are created by end-users, can handle having larger numbers of items without having an adverse effect on the user experience because they are accessed less frequently. Be aware that, although the performance effect of having higher item counts in less frequently accessed folders is reduced, high item counts in these folders can still present intermittent performance issues as the number of folders like this increases, and the number of active users on the server increases.”

It is important to note that not only the user with high items counts will suffer a performance hit, but also all other users on the server.

Microsoft are keen to address this problem with Exchange 2010, they are changing their recommended maximum limits to 100,000 items. This is mainly due to big improvements in disk I/O performance and larger memory caches.

Other ways to address the performance issues are to use Cached Exchange Mode. This passes the performance required to the client computer, from the server. All of the views, searches, sorts etc. take place on the Cached Mode’s OST file. Of course, this is not the answer for everybody and should the mailbox have a massive amount of items and the OST file also be massive, then the user will still experience performance issues.

Housekeeping is the real answer and users should get into the habit of deleting old mail that they do not need to keep. Filing email from ‘critical path folders’ (Calendar, Contacts, Inbox and Sent Items) into user defined folders is also a big help.

Finding Email Addresses

Exchange Server and Outlook come with an inbuilt address book (Global Address Book – GAL) that includes a list of every mailbox on the University’s Exchange email system. There are still other email systems at work at the University and at present the users on those system do not appear in the GAL.

As this is the case, it is important that the CAMA system is used as the de facto standard for finding e-mail address or telephone numbers. You can not guarantee that the person you are trying to reach has their mailbox residing on the Exchange system.

CAMA Interface:
CAMA Interface

The Global Address List is still not without merit, but it should be used carefully. As we have so many staff and students appearing in the list, there is quite a high chance that users have the same name. The GAL should contain information detailing a user’s school / service / course to help determine a specific individual.

GAL in Outlook

Please note that the results have been blurred for the purpose of the screenshot.

1. Start typing the name of the individual that you are trying to find. The GAL will always try to navigate that list based on the user Display Name. This typically follows the Firstname, Lastname format, however due to legacy mail systems and number of users, there are users whose Display Name and email address starts only with their initials.

2. Use the scroll bar to find out more details. Most mailboxes have School / Service / Course information included to help distinguish users with the same name.

3. If you are experiencing difficult finding a user, try changing the search capacity. Changing from Name Only to More Columns allows the search field to look across multiple fields in a user’s account. This will let you search for all users with the same surname or same department for example.

4. Finally using the Advance Find function allows to specifically tailor your search for specific fields.

Removing Erroneous Entries from Outlook’s Autocomplete

Outlook offers the function to remember previously typed email address. It stores these addresses in a Nickname cache (.nk2 file). As useful as this function can be, unfortunately Outlook also remembers addresses that you enter incorrectly.

When next typing the address, the erroneous address is offered as a choice. Without checking, it is easy to select that address and repeat the problem. Fortunately it is a simple procedure to remove the problem addresses.

When creating a new message, start typing the first few letters of the previously entered address.

Autocomplete Screenshot

Please note that the addresses have been blurred for the purpose of the screenshot.

The previously entered addresses appear. You can then use the cursor keys to navigate that list. Once the incorrect address is highlighted, press the Delete key on the keyboard. That address will be removed from the list.

NB. The NK2 file that controls what appears in the autocomplete list is associated with an Outlook profile. Should you change Outlook profiles, then a different/new NK2 file will be used.

Update – Exchange Activesync Stats

Activesync Logo

As it has been roughly a year since we last published some Activesync stats on our blog, we thought it was about time to give an update.

There are 1003 users using the mobile service, which is made up of 551 Staff and 452 Students.

The statistics detail the number of different devices that sync with the Exchange servers for email / calendaring / etc.

Activesync Stats Pie Chart

A full list of device types:

Android 1
HTC Hero 17
HTC Sapphire 1
HTC Tattoo 2
Apple iPhone 493
Apple iPod Touch 96
kila 1
Nokia5530 1
Nokia5800XpressMusic 6
Nokia6220c1 1
NokiaE51 2
NokiaE61 4
NokiaE63 2
NokiaE65 2
NokiaE71 34
NokiaE751 6
NokiaN78 1
NokiaN818GB 1
NokiaN82 1
NokiaN868MP 2
NokiaN95 2
NokiaN958GB 8
NokiaN96 1
NokiaN97 8
NokiaS60 1
Palm 1
PalmOneTreoAce 1
Windows PocketPC 218
Pulse 1
RoadSyncClient 1
RoadSyncClientV3 4
Windows SmartPhone 78

23rd September: Three fantastic Microsoft enterprise IT presentations

We are very pleased to be able to announce a stellar line up of technical presentations and speakers from Microsoft at the September VBUG Newcastle IT Pro meeting here on the Newcastle University campus…

The Dynamic Desktop Experience – Windows 7, Windows XP Mode, App-V, MDT, MDOP and System Center – Dan Oliver

Windows 7 offers Microsoft’s customers with an opportunity to deliver a platform that releases new capabilities that deliver real business benefit and significantly reduced cost of ownership. The challenge for most companies is that deploying and migrating desktops is time consuming and traditionally offers service continuity risks with Application Compatibility that can prevent progress. This presentation will show capabilities, architectures and strategies that allow companies to move forward cost effectively to the benefits of a modern operating system. Level: 100

Dan Oliver is a Pre Sales Architect within Microsoft UK’s Speciality Technology Unit with some 14 years’ experience of Microsoft-based solutions primarily in the virtualization and systems management fields. Dan has a background that covers a broad spectrum of industry sectors ranging from Financial, Telecoms, Partners, Legal, Professional Services and Healthcare. Dan has also had the opportunity to work as a Chief Technology Officer for the Faculty of Advocates in the Scottish Legal Sector.

Novell and Lotus Notes – Migrating to Microsoft – Conrad Sidey

The business value of implementing Microsoft technologies like Active Directory, Exchange 2007 and SharePoint are clearly understood within Microsoft. For our customers that are still running their organisation on technologies like Novell and Lotus Notes they are starting to gain an understanding of the value of migrating to Microsoft technologies. The purpose behind this presentation is to provide the technical community with an insight into leading a project and architecting a solution to migrate environment that are running both Novell Netware and Lotus Notes. The presentation will discuss envisioning & planning of a Novell and Notes migration project, approaches to undertaking the migration depending upon the business drivers, providing an overview of the approach we are taking in migrating a UK Local City Council while providing coexistence, as well as presenting a number of migration & coexistence recommendations or lessons learnt from the project. Level: 200

Conrad Sidey is a Solution Architect within Microsoft Consulting Services with some 17 years’ experience of Microsoft-based solutions primarily in the infrastructure field. Conrad has a background that covers a broad spectrum of industry sectors ranging from Financial and Insurance, Manufacturing, Aero-Engineering, Defence, UK and European Government Agencies, Power Generators, Retail and Brewing. Conrad has also had the opportunity to work with large scale outsourcing services providers.

Implementing the “Black Box” – Performance Monitoring and Analysis for proactive and reactive support, server baselining and capacity planning – Richard Diver

All current versions of Windows come with a free tool that can prevent server downtime and solve many mysteries – Perfmon!

A little bit of practice with this tool can really help to solve issues with servers that may not even be performance related. Working at the OS level, you can find cause to most performance bottlenecks regardless of server function (Exchange, DC, Web etc).

This is something that has even more focus in future versions of Windows; a brief overview of these benefits will be shown also! Level: 300

Richard Diver is a Premier Field Engineer with 10 years experience implementing and supporting a range of Microsoft technologies, specialising in Active Directory, Server Platform and Virtualisation.

Wrap up Q&A with all presenters at the end.

Time: 18:45 to 21:00

Location: Room 118, Claremont Tower, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 7RU

Price: FREE

Please register for your place at the VBUG site so we can make sure we have enough space and refreshments. 🙂

Office 2010 reaches Technical Preview

Yesterday, at their Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft announced that the next release of Office has reached the Technical Preview milestone. The announcement included demos of some features, and there are more on their site Introducing Microsoft Office 2010 Technical Preview (unfortunately the site appeared to be struggling under the load, but Long Zheng contacted me to say he had reliable mirrors of the videos on his fantastic blog).

Office 2010 isn’t the revolutionary product that Office 2007 was, where Microsoft introduced it’s new Ribbon interface, but the Ribbon has evolved (and spread to the places where it wasn’t last time round, like Outlook), and they appear to have added some handy new features. You should check the videos out to see what may be most appealing to you, but there are some things that I think will give productivity gains to most users (albeit small ones, but they all add up over the lifetime of a version of version of Office).

I particularly like the new printing UI in Word which incorporates the printing dialogue options along with the print preview – it removes at least one step (checking the preview before going to the print the document), but it could potentially remove several iterations of checking the preview, altering the print options, checking the preview again, etc. This feature is actually part of what Microsoft call Backstage, which should be consistent across the whole Office suite. Also in Word, the Navigation Pane looks like a handy way to search and manage the order of sections in a large document.

In Outlook, if you’re going to send a message to someone on your Exchange infrastructure who has an out of office auto-reply setup, the new MailTips will tell you that when you add them to the recipient list, rather than you composing the message and sending it before you find out that the person isn’t there to read it. Something else in Outlook that got a lot of positive feedback on Twitter from the people watching the streaming video of the WPC keynote was the option to ignore a mail conversation, which would throw out all the past and future messages in a conversation (the conversation view of your inbox has been promoted to be the default in Outlook 2010).

For the first time, Office has an online version – Office Web Apps provide trimmed down versions of the desktop applications in the browser (IE/FF/Safari). This won’t be part of the Technical Preview, instead debuting later in the year. I don’t know if this has been announced before, but when you look at Google Docs it’s probably an obvious step – Office Web Apps will be free to consumers with a Windows Live ID. In addition, Microsoft will provide a hosted version for businesses (like Google do), but they also allow companies to host them locally, in case you don’t want to give your data to Microsoft (not an option with Google Docs).

Although I’m not a heavy user of Office (other than Outlook), I’m a bit of an Office junkie, so I expect I’ll post more about it up to the release, but in the meantime you can go and check out those vids and you might want to check out Paul Thurrott’s write-up of the Technical Preview on his SuperSite for Windows. If that makes you desperate to get your hands on the Technical Preview, you can add yourself to the Waitlist.

TechNet Conference goes virtual (19 June 2009)

From Microsoft:

We’re pleased to announce the launch of the very first TechNet Virtual Conference taking place on 19 June 2009.

You told us that time and budget pressures make attending in person events difficult – so to help both you and the environment we decided to take the TechNet Conference virtual. Now you and your colleagues can join us to get a flavour of some key Microsoft technologies from the comfort of your own desks.

  • Windows 7 – Deployment and Management
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 – 10 things to make life easier for IT Pros
  • An overview of Office Communications Server R2 and voice capabilities
  • The trials and tribulations of SharePoint implementation

We are also really pleased to announce an exclusive Keynote featuring Mark Russinovich, Microsoft Technical Fellow specialising in the Windows platform.

And that’s not the only difference this year. In addition to Microsoft technology news and product overviews from the experts, the TechNet Virtual Conference will also feature a second auditorium focused on IT Management, including:

  • How IT will change over the next 10 years and why you should care – an exclusive session delivered at TechEd EMEA
  • Growing the Business and Managing Costs at Microsoft – An Insider’s View, presented by Asif Jinnah, IT Manager, Microsoft UK

Click here to see the full agenda.

Free events on campus in May

As I previously posted, Thursday 14th May sees Eileen Brown from Microsoft come up to the campus to talk about Unified Messaging. This should be a really interesting presentation, especially as WIT are looking to expand our Exchange systems into the UM area. Unfortunately, it’s possibly the last time we’ll get to see Eileen presenting in the North East as a member of the TechNet team, since she blogged yesterday that her current role is being impacted by the recently announced layoffs at Microsoft.

Sign up for your free place at the VBUG site (membership is not required).

Since the last Monday of May is a bank holiday, the SuperMondays event this month is being held on a Tuesday, but don’t let that put you off because the line-up is one of the best yet. The event is being held on the 26th May in the University’s Culture Lab and will feature some of the really interesting work being done there and more.

See for more details and sign up at Eventbrite.