No Quarter

Before I get into the meat of this week's topic, I need to clarify something I said last week. I wrote that the Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer (MBSA) doesn't check for Exchange hotfixes. Several readers wrote to point out that MBSA 1.1 and later do check for Exchange security patches. What I meant to say was that MBSA doesn't check for non-security-related patches. Sorry for the confusion.

As I sat down to write this week's column, my MP3 player's random play function settled on Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter." That got me thinking: Here's a song from a band that formed well before I was born, off an album released when I was just a stripling, but I'm listening to it and enjoying it—and my young sons have already shown a tendency toward Led Zeppelin fandom. Why is that? Led Zep's music has been around a long time, and it's durable—people will probably still be listening to it 50 years from now. (That's scary—imagine what an "oldies" station in 2050 or so will sound like!)

On the surface, this rumination might seem to have nothing to do with Exchange, but there is a connection. How "classic" is your Exchange architecture? More important, how can you prepare your Exchange systems to face the future unafraid?

The first step in future-proofing your server is estimating a time horizon for it. Saying "I want my messaging architecture to be usable in the same form 20 years from now" probably isn't realistic—by that time, who knows what will have taken the place of today's servers and storage devices? A better goal is to try to figure out how long your current messaging infrastructure will remain viable. Even that can be a difficult task because messaging folks usually aren't in charge of how fast their companies grow or whether they merge with others. However, looking at historic growth rates will give you a clue about future viability. Look back at how fast your mailbox stores, user counts, and servers have grown, then extrapolate future sizing.

The next step is to take a deep breath, then repeat to yourself "Hardware later is better than hardware now." Thanks to innovation, price competition, and Moore's Law, the longer you hold off buying more storage or computing power, the better value you'll generally get. Of course, if you need more storage or horsepower now to provide service to your users, then waiting might actually cost you money. (Remember, too, that as Windows evolves you might decide to upgrade hardware just to take advantage of new features—for example, the advent of the Volume Shadow Copy Service—VSS—in Windows Server 2003 might prompt some to upgrade.) Balancing these two contrary facts in your situation is key to choosing a hardware upgrade cycle that makes sense for you. One reason that Storage Area Networks (SANs) are catching on is that they offer the promise of easily expandable storage for all sorts of applications—and at a lower management cost than the more familiar Direct Attached Storage (DAS).

After you have an idea of approximately how long your hardware will last, make sure that your Exchange servers are flexible. Here are a few things to think about:

  • Are all your Exchange servers member servers, or do you have Exchange boxes that are also Global Catalog (GC) servers or domain controllers (DCs)? (If you do, move Exchange off of them—GC servers and DCs are much harder to upgrade than member servers are.)
  • If you wanted to move to Windows 2003 or Exchange Server 2003 (formerly code-named Titanium) tomorrow, would any of your servers (such as those running content filters or antivirus scanners) hold you back? If you have such servers, consider how you'll upgrade them when the time comes.
  • How familiar are you with existing migration tools and methods? Don't neglect tried-and-true tactics such as the swing-server move method when you're thinking about how to get users off that old Pentium 233 onto the spiffy new 4GHz machines you'll be wanting to buy next year.
  • Are you likely to be changing the infrastructure on which Exchange depends? For example, rolling out Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2000 now lets you provide secure, VPN-less remote access for Outlook users before Outlook 11 and Exchange 2003 are officially released. Then, when you get those new products, you can keep using the same method of access but with better efficiency and bandwidth usage.

Looking into the future is always fun—and challenging. I recently found a 1980 issue of "PC Magazine" in which a panel of experts was asked to predict the state of computing in 1990 and 2000. It was funny to see how widely the "experts" missed the mark. To make sure the joke isn't on you 10 years hence, plan now for future upgrades and expandability.

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