I thought it would be helpful to Business Computing World readers to provide a little advice and answers to real world concerns on Microsoft’s Exchange 2010. I’d be interested to hear your feedback.

Apart from the intangible productivity benefits, what does it really deliver to my users?

Typically, an upgrade to the Microsoft Exchange server should have little impact on the user community. When properly implemented, client performance will be noticeably quicker, making the whole Outlook user experience feel more slick and responsive.

Also, Outlook will handle and process a much larger quantity of mailbox items, without slowing down to a crawl, thanks to its efficient data transfers. For users, this means faster search results and quicker preview panel updates. Without the same performance implications, the option exists to offer larger mailboxes than before, however you will need sufficient storage to implement and maintain such a policy.
Finally, the advent of database availability groups (DAGs) means that system resilience and recovery are greatly improved – limiting the likelihood of downtime and disgruntled users.

Are public cloud email services a better option for my business?

It’s the million dollar question – will a cloud email service deliver at a lower cost than in-house system? The new wave of cloud computing strategy is first and foremost about controlling costs. The inability to customise cloud email services to an exact set of requirements, means that many businesses will never be able to achieve an equal level of functionality or granularity.

As a replacement for a simple out-of-the-box implementation, cloud email does start to look very attractive, as long as providers can satisfy data security questions and implications around shared infrastructure. Connecting to the public cloud will significantly impact on network traffic, and will really highlight weaknesses across the network in the form of poor user experience.

Lastly, migrating data into the cloud brings with it all the same risks and considerations of in-house systems – but what happens when a cloud solution is no longer appropriate? At the moment, very little thought is given to potential cloud exit strategies, something which may undo any long-term cost-benefits.

How does virtualisation affect my Exchange 2010 architecture and what should I watch out for?

There is no reason to keep the mail servers on physical kit anymore. But, there is still confusion about what is supported, sustainable and appropriate for organisations looking at the virtualisation options for Exchange 2010. It is very important to be confident, when you are counting on assistance from Microsoft, that there is no risk of push back for not having a “supported configuration”. This doesn’t affect everyone and the capabilities of 3rd party providers or dedicated in-house support can provide much needed assurance.

If there has already been significant investment in a virtual environment, then there is a logical argument to deploy Exchange into it. However, to complicate matters, currently there is no firm agreement about how to deploy alongside features like VMotion and HA, as VMware best-practice is not recognised as a supported configuration by Microsoft. Furthermore, Microsoft are confident that Exchange’s built in HA features should be adopted as best practice. Ultimately, that decision is up to the business and must account for its individual requirements and current infrastructure.

If a company is yet to virtualise much of its existing server estate, the decision must be based on whether the final solution will deliver an appropriate Exchange platform. If the system is not considered business critical, it makes little sense to invest in the storage and infrastructure required to virtualise a handful of servers, just to get Exchange running.

Can I really avoid deploying complex and expensive storage solutions for Exchange 2010 and what do I do with my existing SAN? 

If you significantly invested in a quality SAN infrastructure, you won’t want to remove it or not make the most of it. Using clustered configurations with multiple databases (DAGs), will lead to a significant increase in storage requirements and Microsoft recommends that the overflow of data be pushed onto cheaper infrastructure. The opportunity to exploit lower specification storage, without a performance penalty, is a tempting proposition and will meet the needs of some organisations.

The downside is that this configuration will be much more challenging to manage and loses the benefit of centralised administration, monitoring and backup.

Exchange still needs protection and while it may be cheap, JBOD can be difficult to fail over to or initiate a recovery from. Within a SAN arrangement, losing a single disk does not necessarily cause a significant issue. Losing email data has to be one of the most disruptive user experiences there is, so are you willing or able to take risks in order to leverage the benefits of cheap storage?

Everyone should architect their Exchange infrastructure with resilience and uptime in mind, as well as the ability to swiftly recover from disk failure.

Do I still need to use 3rd party archiving products like Enterprise Vault? 

The archiving features in Exchange 2010 will enable administrators to control database sizes far more efficiently. However, tools like Enterprise Vault possess real pedigree here, which is reflected in its seamless integration with a user’s mailbox and centralised discovery tools.

You must understand the reasons why your organisation needs archiving. If your need to discover and interrogate the email store is occasional, or granularity and journaling are not a compliance concern, then Exchange 2010 may well be a viable choice. If legal discovery, email auditing or policy based retention are required by the business, then it is very sensible to consider archiving platforms such as EV.

The archiving in Exchange can help to address a narrow, specific need around reducing the size of the primary email database, but it is first generation at present and shouldn’t replace the capabilities of a specialist tool.

You also need to consider whether Exchange is the only platform you are interested in archiving. If you need similar levels of functionality for other information systems, such as File Servers or SharePoint, future proof your plans by investing in the platform that caters to these needs.

I have Blackberry but how do I connect iPhones and Android devices? Is Active Sync secure?

Active Sync is a secure protocol. IT departments are facing a growing challenge with the next generation of iPhone, Android and Microsoft smartphones, so a device management policy is a must. Recently, companies, such as Good Technology, have gained traction by providing a universal solution for other mobile operating systems. Remote devices represent the single biggest risk of data loss in any organisation, so you need to think about how all information can be securely managed, along with the devices themselves.