By Del Smith

Microsoft Exchange has become one of the most popular enterprise-wide e-mail systems used by organizations today. With so many Exchange deployments and seats being sold, who keeps the e-mail flowing? Even more importantly, how many of these talented e-mail professionals do you need in your organization? Network administrators have had to struggle with this dilemma ever since Exchange 4.0 rolled onto the scene in 1997.

What are the factors to consider when deciding how many Exchange Administrators you need?

  • Number of e-mail users
  • Complexity of the e-mail environment
  • Interoperability of e-mail systems
  • Experience of the Exchange administrator

Let’s look at each of these considerations.

Number of e-mail users
Obviously, administration of a 100-user environment is inherently less complex than for a 10,000-seat organization. A larger Exchange seat base means keeping a close eye on database size and integrity. More mailboxes need to be added, deleted, and modified. Server requirements and health need to be constantly monitored. Backups and restores will undoubtedly become a time consuming and frequently requested task. A 10,000-user seat base can be daunting for any Exchange administrator. I use a rule of thumb that suggests a ratio of one Exchange administrator for each 1,000 e-mail users.

Complexity of the e-mail environment
The number of servers that you need to run your mail system has an even bigger impact on how many Exchange administrators are required in your organization. If the Exchange environment was created with simplicity in mind, the number of Exchange administrators can be greatly reduced. If not, you may require Exchange administrators with specific responsibilities. One group may be responsible for maintaining message flow between servers and sites. Another group may handle basic mailbox administration. And still another group may keep Public Folder replication fine-tuned.

Geographical location of the Exchange servers can increase the complexity of the mail system. Exchange servers in the same site have a much easier time of replication than servers in multiple sites. Long distance replication involves additional administration to ensure that each server does not have any conflicts.

Finally, administrators must contend with the configuration of servers. Often, individual configurations of servers in a large user environment are tweaked for special functions. Firewalls, DNS, and WINS setups can complicate the situation when all the servers are not on the same page.

Interoperability of e-mail systems
Microsoft Exchange is not the only major player in the market. Lotus Notes, Lotus cc:Mail, Novell GroupWise, MSMail, and others still share some of the space. In a perfect world, you’d have one e-mail system per company. However, in this time of mergers and acquisitions, many administrators are stuck with the task of getting two different e-mail systems to work with each other. Even if those companies happen to have homogenous Exchange environments, there is still the additional administration of merging the two Exchange organizations. Once these two e-mail systems start exchanging mail, the work is not done. It is the responsibility of the Exchange administrator to ensure that the connection allows the free flow of messages and data.

Experience of the Exchange administrator
There is no substitute for experience. The next closest substitute is increased headcount. However, one highly skilled Exchange guru can administer several Exchange servers, housing hundreds of users in various locations talking to multiple systems. If you’re lucky, your in-house Exchange administrator falls into this category. If not, you may need to supplement his or her administrative duties with some additional help or training. Before evaluating a new hire, ensure that he or she can provide the level of service you need. Otherwise, you might find yourself having to hire additional help to compensate.

In the past, setting up the e-mail system was the hardest part. Once it was set up, you could move on to other things without much tinkering. Now, however, users demand more functionality from their e-mail. As a result, more pressure is put on administrators to ensure reliability and security. To date, there is no magic formula to determine how many administrators are needed to provide the perfect balance. However, observing the four factors mentioned above will help when you’re trying to sort through the short list of qualified Exchange administrators.

Del Smith, MCSE+I, CCA, CCNA, and Network+, is vice president of operations for IT Support Center. IT Support Center focuses on offering managed network services to midsize clients. He has over seven years of IT experience.

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