Learn a best practices approach to Exchange administration

When trying to answer Exchange questions from newbies, some of the answers given out by "highly experienced" IT people range from the unnecessarily cumbersome, to the potentially disastrous. Here are some places to look for best practices.

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.