You Can Learn a Lot from a Dummy

My kids love those public-service announcements that feature a pair of talking crash-test dummies. These advertisements always close with the memorable tagline "You can learn a lot from a dummy." What does this have to do with Exchange Server? Plenty: This week I want to talk about crash-test dummies for Exchange.

Have I lost my mind? No. There's a parallel between the kinds of well-instrumented testing that automobile manufacturers perform and the kinds of tests and preparations you should prepare for your Exchange configuration. Crash-test dummies can help engineers determine the kinds and magnitudes of forces that impinge on the victims of a car crash; Exchange test dummies--recovery servers, in other words--can help you fine-tune your operational and recovery procedures.

Let's start with that old bugaboo, mailbox recovery. One morning you get a call from Mr. Big, telling you that he needs a message that was deleted 31 days ago. You've enabled deleted item retention for 30 days. What do you do? If you have a recovery server on hand and have practiced with it, you can simply break it out, recover Mr. Big's mailbox from 31 days ago, extract the message, and give it to him.

Here's a scenario guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of even hardened administrators: You notice a spate of -1018 errors in your event log, and when you try to recover from backup you notice that nothing useful is on the tape. You go back to the earliest backup generation, and it's bad too. You want to assess the condition of your database by running Eseutil and Isinteg, but you can't do that in the middle of the work day. Enter the recovery server. You can copy the databases to the recovery server and run Eseutil and Isinteg without affecting your production system.

Need another example? Your IT department is considering switching to a new antivirus product. You want to test it with Exchange to make sure it doesn't mess up anything. You'd have to be crazy to run this type of test on your production server, but a recovery server makes an ideal testbed.

Let's look at one more example. Recovery servers are useful during actual disaster recoveries, particularly when you use Exchange Server 2003's new Recovery Storage Group functionality.

A recovery server can come in handy in many circumstances. But what if your budget doesn't allow for a separate recovery server? In that case, let me suggest VMware Professional and Microsoft's Virtual PC products. These products let you efficiently build virtual machines (VMs) that can run Exchange. Best of all, the VMs are easily portable to any host machine you have around, even a laptop--as long as it has enough horsepower and storage capacity, any system will run VMs. As a bonus, these products are also great for setting up and testing configurations in the lab before deploying them in production.

Whether or not you're a fan of crash-test dummies, Exchange test dummies--aka recovery servers--can be extremely useful. Include them in your strategic and tactical administrative plans whenever possible.

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