SolutionBase: Get a handle on managing Exchange with these three new tools from Microsoft

Exchange doesn't come with a whole lot of tools to help you manage it. Fortunately, you can download a lot of tools directly from Microsoft that can help. Brien Posey takes a look at three very useful ones.

Although System Manager and the other tools that ship with Exchange Server 2003 do a decent job for day to day server management tasks, I have always thought that Exchange Server was severely lacking when it comes to troubleshooting tools. Recently though, Microsoft has released three new tools that can make troubleshooting Exchange related problems a whole lot easier. These new tools are not automatically integrated into Exchange through any sort of patching process, but they are freely available from Microsoft's Web site. In this article, I'll show you how they work.

The Exchange Server Performance Troubleshooting Analyzer

The first tool that I want to discuss is the Exchange Server Performance Troubleshooter Analyzer (ExPTA). The ExPTA's purpose is to help you to discover the cause of Exchange related performance problems. In the past, if an Exchange Server started performing poorly for no apparent reason, you would have to use the Performance Monitor to look for clues as to the cause of the problem (assuming that you aren't running Microsoft Operations Manager). The Performance Monitor is an excellent diagnostic tool, but you have to know how to interpret the raw data. The chances of a newbie Administrator being able to make sense of the raw data and figure out the cause of the problem within a reasonable amount of time are pretty slim.

This is where the ExPTA tool comes into play. This tool is designed to ask you some questions about the symptoms of your performance related problem and then to help you solve that problem by analyzing your server for you.

Before I show you how to use the ExPTA tool, I should mention that you might want to run this tool during non peak hours from a machine other than your Exchange Server. The analytical process consumes CPU cycles and memory. If your Exchange Server is already performing poorly, then the added stress of running this tool could potentially cause the server to crash. Running the ExPTA tool from another machine and during non peak hours minimizes the strain placed on your Exchange Server.

With that said, the first step is to download and install the tool. I'm not going to go through the installation process because it is extremely simple to complete. Once the tool is installed though, it is accessible from your computer's All Programs | Microsoft Exchange menu.

When the tool starts, the first thing that it does is checks for updates. Once you have downloaded and installed any available updates, you will be taken to the utility's Welcome screen. This screen, shown in Figure A, asks you what symptoms you are experiencing. As you can see in the figure, there are currently only two choices available. Keep in mind though that Microsoft has indicated that the tool will be expanded as new tests are developed.

Figure A

Select the symptoms of your problem.

The screen that you will see next varies depending on which of the options that you select, but you will be asked a series of questions regarding your condition. After answering these questions, the ExPTA tool will perform a quick analysis to determine the number of databases and mailboxes on your server. Click Next and the testing process will begin. The testing results screen looks something like the one shown in Figure B.

Figure B

This is what the results screen looks like.

As you can see, the ExPTA tool still needs a little work, but if you happen to be experiencing one of the issues that the tool can analyze, then ExPTA is a very handy tool to have.

The Exchange Server Disaster Recovery Analyzer

The next tool that I want to talk about is the Exchange Server Disaster Recovery Analyzer (ExDRA). My opinion of the ExDRA tool is that it is nothing short of an answer to prayers.

As you probably already know, repairing and mounting an Exchange database after a disaster has always been challenging to say the least. Microsoft has greatly improved the recovery process in Exchange Server 2003, but if you don't know exactly what you are doing then getting a database to mount can still be a frustrating experience. This is where the ExDRA tool comes in. The ExDRA analyzes the database that you are attempting to mount and gives you a step by step list of instructions for bringing the database into a consistent state so that it can be mounted.

The tool offers an extremely simple installation program and is accessible after installation from your computer's All Programs | Microsoft Exchange menu.

When you launch the program, check for, and allow you to download any existing updates. After updating the program, you will see the tool's Welcome screen. The Welcome screen basically just tells you that the tool can be used against any server running Exchange 2000 with Service Pack 3 or higher, or against an Exchange 2003 Server.

Click Next and you will be asked if you would like the ExDRA to automatically detect the database location or if you would like to specify it manually. I've always had good luck using the auto detect option, but depending on your server's current state you may have to use the manual input mode once in a while. After choosing the auto detect option, you will be prompted to enter your server's name, a domain controller's name, and a set of authentication credentials. Click Next and the ExDRA tool will validate the credentials that you have entered.

At this point, you will be asked to select the storage group that is having problems. Make your selection and click Next. The ExDRA will now show you which databases are and are not mounted, as shown in Figure C. You must now make your selection and click the Analyze Selected Database link.

Figure C

Make your selection and click the Analyze Selected Database link.

Depending on the database's size and condition the analysis process could take a while. When the process completes, you will see a report that looks something like the one that's shown in Figure D. As you can see, the report even links to the Microsoft Knowledgebase article relating to your server's condition.

Figure D

This is what the database status report looks like.

The Microsoft Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer Tool, Version 2.5

The Microsoft Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer (EXBPA) has been around for quite a while now. However, the most recent version was released on the same day as the two tools that I have just discussed. In case you aren't familiar with the EXBPA tool, it is a utility that allows you to compare your Exchange Server's configuration against the configuration that's recommended by Microsoft. This allows you to check for potential performance or security related issues.

There have been at least a couple of significant changes since the original version of EXBPA was released. For starters, there was some controversy regarding some of the rules that the original version used to determine whether or not your server was running an optimal configuration. These issues have since been addressed, and this version of EXBPA contains the latest and most accurate set of configuration rules. Another enhancement is that version 2.5 of EXBPA is now designed to report configuration information to Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) servers. Even if you don't have a MOM server though, EXBPA can still be used as a stand alone management tool.

I'm not going to bore you by walking you through the EXBPA installation process. It basically just consists of downloading the utility, double clicking the downloaded file, and accepting an end user license agreement. What is important though is where you install the utility. Although you can install the EXBPA utility directly onto an Exchange Server, Microsoft recommends that you refrain from doing so. Server scans consume a large amount of CPU and memory resources.

As such, a scan could potentially deplete the Exchange Server of the resources that it needs in order to function properly. If you should decide to run EXBPA directly on an Exchange box, then I recommend that you only perform scans during non-peak operating hours and that you refrain from using that instance of EXBPA to scan other Exchange Servers in your organization.

You can access the EXBPA tool by selecting the Best Practice Analyzer Tool option from your computer's All Programs | Microsoft Exchange menu. When the EXBPA tool starts, the first thing that it will do is to check the Microsoft Web site for new versions. Although version 2.5 was released fairly recently, there is already an update available. The latest update includes a few bug fixes and adds support for various Exchange Server aware antivirus applications.

After checking for (and possibly downloading) updates, it's time for the main event. The EXBPA tool will ask you if you would like to select options for a new scan, or if you would rather view the results of a previous scan. For the purposes of this article, tell EXBPA that you want to select options for a new scan.

At this point, you will see a screen similar to the one that's shown in Figure E. Basically, what this screen is telling you is that in order for the EXBPA tool to work, it needs to be able to read data from a global catalog server. If the computer that you are using is in the same domain as the Exchange Server that you are scanning, you normally won't have any problems with this. If you are running the scan from outside of the domain though, then there is a chance that you may have to manually specify the name of a global catalog server and a set of authentication credentials.

Figure E

You may have to manually specify a global catalog server.

Once you have specified the name of a global catalog server, click the Connect to Active Directory Server link. You will now see the screen shown in Figure F, which asks you what type of scan you would like to perform.

Figure F

You must tell the EXBPA what type of scan you would like to perform.

As you can see in the figure, you must start out by entering a name for the scan. This is simply a nickname that you can use to differentiate this scan from other scans that you might perform later. Next, you must choose which servers you want to scan. Keep in mind that if you are running EXBPA directly from the Exchange Server then it's a bad idea to scan other servers.

The next thing that you must select is the type of scan that you want to perform. You can run a health check, a connectivity test, or a baseline. Now, select the speed of your connection to the server and click the Start Scanning link (you also have the option of scheduling a scan). EXBPA will now perform the requested scan.

When the scan completes, click the View a Report of this Best Practice Scan link to see the results. The results screen looks something like the one shown in Figure G. Keep in mind that by default the report only shows you critical issues. You can choose to look at other issues by selecting the view that you want to use from the Select a Report drop down list. Unless you need more detailed information though, I recommend fixing any existing critical issues before moving on to other issues.

Figure G

This is what the default report looks like.

Even more

As you can see, the new Exchange Server tools can really help you out when it comes to troubleshooting various issues. The three tools that I have demonstrated are only some of the tools available at Microsoft's Exchange Tools Web site. Check the site to see what else is there.