By Derrick Brasslett

If you’ve spent much time browsing Exchange support sites
and newsgroups, you’ve seen many of the same questions asked over and over by
Exchange newbies. The repetitiveness of these questions drives some old-time newsgroup
curmudgeons crazy, but it’s somewhat forgivable. After all, that’s what newbies
do, right?

The questions asked by green administrators aren’t really what
scare me. A much larger problem is that some of the answers given out by “highly
experienced” IT people range from the unnecessarily cumbersome, to the potentially
disastrous. Even such everyday and well-documented subjects such as properly
backing up Exchange databases get mangled by people who are probably
well-intentioned, yet totally clueless. They outline mysterious procedures the
rest of the world has never heard of, and yet these administrators swear by
them. This happens enough that I suspect many people that are supposed to be
taking care of their company’s Exchange infrastructure are in fact flirting
with disaster.

Before you get defensive, or figure I can’t be referring to
YOU, think about it: when was the last time you reviewed the best practices for
maintaining a healthy Exchange organization? Maybe you were a real expert on
Exchange 5.5, but it’s been a few years and a couple of upgrades since you’ve
refreshed your knowledge. Or maybe you’ve never received any formal training,
never read a Microsoft KnowledgeBase article, and learned how to administer via
the “school of hard knocks.” In either case, please read on because
this does indeed apply to you.

Fortunately for us all, there is a great deal of reliable
information regarding Exchange administration. This information is often
referred to collectively as “best practices”. For our purposes, let’s define
best practices as “common administrative techniques practiced by a large number
of administrators that, over time, are proven to be effective.” Best practices
for Exchange administration can be found in a number of places, many of which
I’ll describe here.

Exchange admin basics

Let’s start with the most obvious source of information:
Microsoft’s Web site at http://support.microsoft.com/select/default.aspx.
The Exchange best practices outlined on the Microsoft Web site are not just
cooked up in a Microsoft test lab; they are tested and refined over the years by
the input of Microsoft’s customer base. Here, a new administrator can learn all
of the basic information he or she will need to be successful, while
experienced administrators will almost certainly pick up some new knowledge. It
is the most comprehensive single source of information for all things
Microsoft, and it’s free. How can you beat that?

On the other hand, a Microsoft TechNet subscription isn’t
free, but it is a good investment. In addition to Microsoft KnowledgeBase
articles, you get whitepapers, service packs, downloads, and other goodies. The
TechNet homepage can be found at http://www.microsoft.com/technet/default.mspx

Of course, Microsoft isn’t the only source for good
information regarding Exchange. Many other Web sites’ and newsgroups’
frequently asked questions (FAQ) lists provide a lot of help to both new and
experienced administrators. A couple of my personal favorites are http://www.slipstick.com/ and http://www.exchangefaq.org/. These sites
are also free and the information is presented in a fashion that many folks
find more digestible than the official Microsoft documents. If you want to post
an Exchange question or just browse around some of those already asked and
answered, you can do so at TechRepublic’s Discussion center or TechQ&A.

If you prefer the old-school method of data retrieval (also
known as reading a book), there are also many good choices. The Exchange
24Seven series
by Jim McBee is great for those who are looking for a source
of in-depth information. Any of the books by Tony Redmond or Paul Robichaux are
great additions to your personal knowledge arsenal, as are the Microsoft books
on the subject. While they may be different in focus and content, what these
books all share is that the advice they give is solid and proven.

Training classes for Microsoft Exchange are offered
virtually everywhere in the civilized world. I believe that training classes
are more useful once one has at least some basic understanding of the product,
but some folks may need to get jump-started quickly, and training classes can help
fill that need. Self-paced Exchange training is also available, which is great
for the highly-motivated administrator with time and budget constraints.

Know best practices before trusting alternative methods

Whether you choose to educate yourself on the various
reputable Web sites, through reading an administrator’s guide, or through
training, make sure you get advice that has passed the scrutiny of many eyes.
Newsgroups and the like can be great sources of information, especially on very
specific problems or techniques. The problem is that it can be difficult to be
sure that the person answering you is credible, and that the answer you’re
getting is accurate. In order to take advantage of the advice, you need to have
a solid understanding of best practices yourself, so that you can filter the
information you’re getting.

I’m sure that somewhere, there is someone reading this that
is an exception. He or she never cracked a book or visited a Web site, having studied
at the feet of some great Exchange guru, who passed his knowledge on to the protégé.
This is undoubtedly the exception rather than the rule. However, if you really
believe this describes you, take a look at some of the sources mentioned above—it
can’t hurt, just to be sure.

It’s also worth mentioning that some third-party products
out there don’t strictly follow what could be termed best practices, yet they
have scores of satisfied users. For example, some backup solutions fit into
this category, using a proprietary method of backup and restore that isn’t part
of what we’d normally call best practices. That’s fine, as long as you’ve done
your homework and really understand what you’re getting into. And the best way
to understand how these third-party products contrast and compare to standard
best practices is (drum roll please)…knowing what the best practices are in the
first place.

An administrator that operates without understanding and
utilizing best practices is living on borrowed time. Everything we work on in
IT is just one day closer to some kind of meltdown. That’s just the nature of
the hardware and software we call information systems. A clueless Exchange
admin that uses some mystery formula instead of best practices will get stuck
by his ignorance sooner or later. Don’t let it happen to you.