For many of us, solving technical problems is a matter of pride, and we’d hate to let a stubborn hardware installation or software conflict beat us. There are times, however, when support pros need to swallow their pride and escalate a problem to the administrator level—particularly when it comes to e-mail support.

TechRepublic’s Exchange administrator Mike Laun said there are two specific Outlook problems that support pros can knock themselves out trying to solve, but that an administrator can solve in a few minutes:

  • Breaking an e-mail loop overwhelming a mailbox
  • Stopping an irritating spam stream from a known host

E-mail loops and targeted spam can both inundate a mailbox with messages, but Laun explains that these issues differ in source and solution.

Here we go loop-de-loop
An e-mail loop typically occurs when two e-mail systems are set to automatically respond, and they happen to connect to each other. The most common way this happens is when an Out-Of-Office automated reply sends its message to an automated service, such as a customer service mailbox, that in turn sends an automatic message to acknowledge receipt of the message it receives.

“A lot of message systems aren’t as smart as Exchange, which knows to send an Out-Of-Office automated reply only once to a particular recipient,” Laun said.

Recently, a TechRepublic employee’s Outlook account got caught in an e-mail loop while he was away. He had thousands of e-mails in his Inbox when he came back to work. Before he could turn off the Out-Of-Office Assistant, he was getting messages faster than he could delete them.

“If you’re getting a bunch of e-mails and they just keep on coming, it’s time to call in an administrator,” Laun said.

If a support tech can break the loop before thousands of e-mails have piled up, he or she can probably have the user just delete the offending messages. But since Outlook limits the number of messages you can delete at a time to 3,000, the user probably would have a problem cleaning out their own mailbox if they received more messages than that, Laun said. It can take an administrator only five minutes to get rid of 4,000 e-mail messages using the Exmerge utility, when it would take a support tech or user a much longer time to do the same from the client end. Essentially, the admin uses Exmerge to export the specific looped e-mails (selected by subject, sender, or time) to a PST file, which he or she then deletes.

Laun said admins can also block the sender address and subject, but he doesn’t recommend that for breaking loops because it can become an administrative nightmare.

The complete delete for spam attacks
Blocking e-mails from a specific host is an appropriate response for controlling spam attacks. End users may set up a rule in Outlook to send spam messages to their Delete folders, and then wonder why their space limitation runs out. What they don’t realize is that this isn’t a complete delete.

If you have a user who’s suffering from a spam attack from a particular address or who has fallen victim to a letter bomb or attempted denial of service attack, the best thing to do is call the Exchange admin.

Laun said the administrator can take several actions to make sure the end user never sees another piece of mail from that particular source. The admin can make a directory called TurfDir on the Exchange server where the Internet Mail Service is located and then set it up so that all mail from a specific SMTP address will be routed to TurfDir before it even gets into the Exchange database. The TurfDir directory has to be manually cleaned out from time to time, but that can be done through a script.

If your organization has something like Trend’s Virus Wall, SMTP addresses can be barred at that point. The message won’t even go across the network. “Any time you can keep a message from getting into the Exchange environment, then it’s going to be more efficient,” Laun said.

Bug the admin
In a well-run IT department, the contact between support techs and administrators should be embraced and encouraged. That way, when problems such as these Exchange issues crop up, the lines of communication are open and the problems can be solved easier. Check out my article on the relationships between support techs and net admins for suggestions on maintaining the lines of communication between the help desk and network administrators.