What caused the crippling of Exchange 2013 modern public folders?

Now that the initial fuss about the limitations that recently emerged for Exchange 2013’s modern public folders has subsided (but just a little), cooler minds turn to thinking about why these limitations exist. After all, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason why the limitations should kick in at 100 public folder mailboxes and 10,000 public folders in the hierarchy. These are, after all, small numbers in the overall scheme of Exchange and especially so when compared to the massive public folder deployments with previous versions of Exchange.

According to some sources, the largest known public folder deployment spans some 36TB of data in 1.2 million folders with a 6GB hierarchy. Obviously it took some time for the company that owns this data to accumulate so many public folders, but that’s life. They had good business reasons for using public folders in this way. What’s important now is that the current restrictions placed by Microsoft on the deployments of modern public folder pale when compared to those kind of volumes.

Given what we know about Exchange 2013, where could the problems lie? Well, apart from belatedly publishing the limitations, Microsoft has not been too forthcoming with information on this point, perhaps because they are pulling together development plans to address the issue and provide solid guidance to customers. In the interim, no one loves a vacuum so let’s fill it with some speculation.

Modern public folders are stored in mailbox databases and not the traditional public folder databases. There is a heap of goodness in this transition, not least the fact that public folders can now be protected like any other mailbox by being in a replicated database within a Database Availability Group (DAG). In fact, an EHLO blog post about modern public folders in May 2013 explains “how public folders were given a lot of attention to bring their architecture up-to-date, and as a result of this work they would take advantage of the other excellent engineering work put into Exchange mailbox databases over the years.” Indeed! Despite the excellence of the engineering, those pesky limitations exist.

Joking apart, the Exchange development team has greatly enhanced the ability of the Information Store to deal with massive amounts of data over the last decade. We know that Exchange 2013 can handle user mailboxes that are larger than 100GB comfortably and that mailbox databases can exceed 2TB without breaking sweat. In light of this, I think it unlikely that the problem is with the Information Store. After all, the 36TB monster deployment could fit in 800 public folder mailboxes, each of which stored 45GB of data plus a copy of the 6GB hierarchy, and spread across 100 mailbox databases, so each database would have 8 public folder mailboxes to keep client connections to a reasonable number.

Each mailbox would have to store 1,500 public folders but that doesn’t seem like a huge problem. The bigger issue would be figuring out how to distribute the 1.2 million public folders across the 800 mailboxes to balance the load. As I have described before, this aspect of public folder migration is poorly served by automation and is an intensely manual, boring, and error-prone process.

I realize that 800 mailboxes is much more than the 100 public folder mailbox limitation that now exists and that a 51GB public folder mailbox is larger than the size recommended by Microsoft. However, 800 large public folder mailboxes distributed across 100 databases is not beyond the power of Exchange 2013 to handle on suitably-configured hardware, especially if the databases are spread across multiple DAG members.

Of course, Microsoft recommends that each public folder mailbox serves no more than 2,000 concurrent users, so my back-of-the-envelope calculation above might run into difficulty if the 800 public folder mailboxes had to handle more than 160,000 concurrently connected users. Even so, I cannot see why the number of mailboxes matters at all, unless it’s to do with the overhead involved in keeping more than a certain number of public folder mailboxes synchronized.

Suspicion then moves to the public folder hierarchy and the way that the new architecture allows for just one writable copy of the hierarchy per organization. This copy is stored in the first public folder mailbox that is created. Every public folder mailbox has its own read-only copy of the hierarchy and updates to folders (such as changing permissions) are referred back to the primary writeable hierarchy, which then updates the secondary hierarchies.

It’s possible that Microsoft has discovered that the current implementation works brilliantly for small deployments (say, 5 public folder mailboxes, each of which holds 200 folders) but the overhead of keeping the hierarchy synchronized across the organization becomes unmanageable at a certain point. Because the amount of updates increase as public folder mailboxes grows, it’s probable that the point where the manageability of updates becomes an issue occurs much sooner than would happen in the 1.2 million folder deployment contemplated above. I am not saying that this is the case or that the architecture is flawed, but it is easy to imagine how problems might arise inside a very busy hierarchy where many folders are updated during business hours.

I guess that it’s also possible that very large public folder deployments might see a clash between the need to serve interactive clients and the behind-the-scenes maintenance required to keep the hierarchy updated.

Outside the Information Store and the modern public folder architecture, it’s possible that the Mailbox Replication Service (MRS) might run into difficulties when it attempts to move large amounts of public folder data during migrations.

When you migrate data from old to new public folders, MRS processes the move in much the same way as it moves mailboxes. MRS connects to a public folder database on a suitable server, enumerates the hierarchy and the data that it finds in the folders, and then copies that information to a set of modern public folders that have been set up to receive the inbound data. Depending on how much data has to be copied, server load, and other conditions, the copy operation might take several days. When the initial copy is done, MRS auto-suspends the migration to allow administrators to validate that folders and data have been moved to the right place. Once everyone’s happy, MRS is allowed to resume the migration to completion, which it does by performing an incremental synchronization to ensure that any changes made since the migration started are picked up. As shown below, the processing done by MRS to move public folders can be compared to the way that it moves mailboxes.

MRS ProcessingPhase Mailbox Move Public Folders
Initialization Connect to source and target mailboxes Connect to legacy public folder database and new public folder mailboxes
Enumeration Mailbox folder structure and number of items in each folder Public folder hierarchy and number of items in each folder
Move Transfer items in enumerated folders from source to target mailbox Transfer items in enumerated folders from source public folder database to target public folder mailboxes
Auto-suspend If required after all enumerated data is transferred Always after all enumerated data is transferred
Completion Immediate if not auto-suspended; otherwise incremental synchronization to copy delta changes from source to target mailbox After flag is set to allow completion, an incremental synchronization copies delta changes from source public folder database to target public folder mailboxes

Generally MRS handles public folder migrations very well. But it’s easy to imagine that MRS might not relish the thought of handling one of the old-style mega public folder deployments, if only because of the sheer amount of items to process. So perhaps the problem is due to MRS running out of steam when faced by a very large migration (one that involves more than 100 target public folder mailboxes and 10,000 source folders). MRS was originally built to move mailboxes rather than public folders and few mailboxes will be as large as a public folder deployment can be, so it’s possible that this is where the root cause lies.

No doubt we shall know more when Microsoft is ready to share their words of wisdom. Hopefully they’ll be able to explain why the issue occurred, why they were not able to test at scale to detect the problem, and why the solution being put in place really will work. It is unfair for customers who have migrated to modern public folders to be told that their infrastructure is now unsupported, as reported in a comment to my earlier post relating news of a hierarchy of 17,000 public folders. Something has to be done and fast.

Perhaps Microsoft will share more information about potential resolutions at the “Modern Public Folders and Migration to Office 365” session at the Microsoft Exchange Conference next week. I’m sure that MVP Sigi Jagott and public folders Program Manager Kanika Ramiji will keep everything cool, calm, and collected and offer some useful guidance to those who are planning a migration. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend that session as the 4:45pm timeslot on Monday finds me chairing the splendidly named “Experts Unplugged: Exchange Top Issues – what are they and does anyone care or listen” panel session. I guess that some questions about the limitations of modern public folders might surface there too!

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User interfaces are no way to assess Google vs Office 365

I’m always interested when companies put their technologists forward as the public face of the company’s expertise in different areas. The idea is that the technologist will wow the readership with deep insights into technology that causes the readers to instantly make contact with the company to request their services/product/help/whatever’s for sale.

The problem with this approach is that the technologist, possibly chosen at random from the ranks of the unwilling writers lurking on the company’s technical staff, might not be up to the task. The views expressed by such an author might be badly researched, off the planet, or simply wrong. It strikes me that the technical leadership inside companies need to do a better job of reviewing what is published on behalf of the company, something that apparently does not happen often.

And so we come to a post on the “Cloud Sherpas” site entitled “Google vs. Microsoft: Which Platform is the Real Change? Part II” by Derik Vanleet, whom we are informed “has a deep technical knowledge of Active Directory, Windows, Exchange, Business Development, Identity Management, Partner Development, Google Apps and Google Enterprise.” It’s a topic that many people will find interesting, especially if written by an expert.

Unfortunately, despite his stated credentials, I fear that Derik misses a number of important points. The central argument that he wants to advance is that Google is easier for users because only two interfaces for each of the four applications (email, file, chat, and social) that he compares against Office 365. By comparison, he calculates that Microsoft makes 26 interfaces available. He therefore concludes that Google is easier to learn. This might well be true. It might also equally be true that the Google apps are less functional. And it might also be true that all of this doesn’t matter because companies make their technology choices for different reasons.

Take email for instance. I guess because we’re taking about user interfaces, the comparison is between Gmail and Outlook rather than Gmail and Exchange. It’s difficult to separate Outlook and Exchange because the two products are so interconnected but it’s valid to do so because Outlook is the way that users think about email. Outlook Web App (not Outlook Web Access – last seen in Exchange 2007 – as shown in the diagram) and mobile clients are also included in the mix.

Although it’s true that Gmail is a simpler and easier to use interface (if all you want to do is send a message), an important fact that is totally overlooked is that there is a very large number of people in the world that have grown up using applications like Outlook to organize their business life. Outlook has been around since 1997 and is a very successful email and PIM. It’s had its difficulties in the past and has been compared to a fat pig of an application, but you can’t argue with success.

The harsh reality of commercial life is that Microsoft has to accommodate its installed base. If they didn’t, they would have zero prospect of success competing against Google for cloud based services. That’s the reason why Microsoft supports Outlook 2007, Outlook 2010 and Outlook 2013 with Office 365. My guess is that Microsoft would love to drop support for Outlook 2007 at this point to reduce their support costs, but that’s impossible when you have such a large installed base. On the other hand, Google started off with a clean slate when they designed Gmail and Google Apps. It’s also true that Google has never supported a traditional desktop client so comparing Outlook and the browser-based Gmail client is a stretch. Although a source of much cost, having a desktop client allows companies to dictate the software that they use and it permits them to install add-on software like CRM modules to meet their business needs. So having fewer user interfaces is a good thing in some respects while being inflexible in others.

Consumers of cloud-based services that use browser interfaces don’t get to vote about updates to user interfaces. Changes are slipstreamed by vendors all the time. You can argue that Google has constantly fiddled with its user interfaces over the years. Gmail remained in beta for a very long time and during that period features appeared and disappeared without warning. Gmail and Apps seem to have settled down now into relative stability but I bet that Google would be much more successful selling Gmail to large enterprises if they had a reasonable integration with Outlook. The existing IMAP or POP integrations are slow and unsatisfactory. Zimbra showed what could be done to connect Outlook to a non-Microsoft Linux-based email server. Google could do the same.

While I’m commenting on email, I note the assertion (in the diagram) that there is no Outlook for Mobile app. Well, Outlook Mobile works pretty well on my Nokia Lumia 1020 and Microsoft released the Outlook Web App for Devices app last July. That app is currently only supported for Apple iOS devices but I expect an announcement around Android support at the Microsoft Exchange Conference next week. To be fair to Dirk, he acknowledges the existence of Outlook Mobile (for the 3.3% who use Windows Phone) and OWA for Devices in the text, so it’s odd that these errors exist in the diagram.

The diagram also lumps Yammer into email, something I cannot understand. I imagine that this is simply a reaction to some Microsoft propaganda (otherwise called enthusiasm) as they seek to find the best use for Yammer. This is just a fact of life as products are integrated with other technology (the same comment could be made about Skype and Lync), but I think that lumping Yammer into email just clouds the comparison for now. Yes, it’s true that Yammer came with an email component and it’s also true that that email component is not well integrated at this point. A more accurate and useful comparison can be made when Yammer is eventually fully integrated with Office 365.

If we take Yammer off the table (only temporarily), then file, chat, and social are shootouts between the Microsoft and Google applications. Social is the hardest area to call. I don’t think Yammer is the answer now, but neither is SharePoint or Google+. IMHO, both companies are struggling to find software that really works in a consistent way for multiple user communities in different industries, countries, and cultures. As Facebook has proven, social networking works outside businesses. The ability of enterprise social networking to help companies achieve better, measurable, and cost-effective business results is still unproven (at least in my mind).

I think the article would be more valuable if it provided a balanced assessment of the state of play between Google and Microsoft (like the comparison published in InfoWorld in January 2014). For instance, Gmail is a good mail server, albeit one that lacks a great client. It’s true that lots of people use it (the first part of the series cites 425 million; what it doesn’t say is how many of these people are – like me – users of the free service. Nor does it factor in the disposable email accounts commonly found in services like Gmail and Hotmail that are set up, used briefly, and then discarded.

A better comparison would be to look at the number of people who pay for Exchange Online (Office 365) and Exchange on-premises versus purchased Gmail. Last November, I calculated that Exchange Online represented about 3.32% of the 301 million seats that Radicati Group reported for Exchange. That was a lowball number and it could be higher. In either case, I hazard a guess that the number of paying customers for Exchange is substantially higher to that for Gmail. I have certainly not paid them a red cent over the years for the privilege of analyzing my email.

Comparing Gmail to Exchange is difficult because Gmail is single platform whereas Exchange allows customers to deploy on-premises, a hybrid solution, or as the pure cloud-based Exchange Online service.

My major focus is email and I am loathe to get into detailed discussions outside that. I think that Google Apps offers some nice functionality that I have used from time to time. However, many prefer the Office equivalents because they have been around for ever, document compatibility is not flawless, and humans find it difficult to change. I imagine that the rumours of Office for iPad will give some additional momentum to the Word-Excel-PowerPoint trio too. Google Drive and OneDrive seem to be much of a muchness. I use OneDrive more because it is better integrated into Windows 8. I don’t use Google Hangouts but do use Lync, but only because I keep on receiving calendar invitations to meetings that use Lync. I do use Google+, but only to publish notices of blog posts that I have written.

In short, you can focus on the number of user interfaces and options if you like but I query the real usefulness of the comparison. At the end of the day, the real question is whether an application solves a business problem in an efficient and effective manner at reasonable cost. As described in this interesting article about why one company moved from Google Apps to Office 365, “it is a battle of the ecosystems” and users often prefer what they know and understand (Office) rather than the great unknown (Google). People are part of that business problem that IT has to solve, so allowing people to continue using software that they have become accustomed to over years is an important factor to consider.

What the article does prove is that Microsoft doesn’t do itself any favors when it goes to market with a confusing collection of different and overlapping products. Yammer versus SharePoint; OneDrive Personal (which isn’t associated with Office 365 at all) and OneDrive Business; Skype and Lync; Yammer Mail and Exchange. You can argue that this smorgasbord of products will be simplified as acquired technology is absorbed into Office. One would hope that this is true. For now it’s confusing and unhelpful, even without comparisons like the one discussed here.

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Posted in Cloud, Email, Office 365, Outlook | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Tony Redmond’s Guide to MEC 2014 – MVP Sessions

I have already shared my recommendations for sessions to attend at the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC). Many of these sessions will be given by Microsoft employees, including members of different product development groups. There’s no doubt that great value can be gained from listening to technical information provided by Microsoft (especially the people who actually write the code), but equal value can be obtained by sharing the views of real-world experts, all of whom are more than willing to share their independent opinions about Exchange, Office 365, Lync, and related topics.

MVPs attending MEC

MVPs attending MEC

Microsoft calls these folks “Most Valuable Professionals” or MVPs, a designation that is awarded on an annual basis. Recognition as an MVP is often associated with contributions to the technical community such as delivering sessions at conferences such as MEC, so there’s no surprise to find that a good selection of MEC sessions will be either delivered or chaired (in the case of Q&A panels) by MVPs. In summary, 14 Exchange MVPs and 3 Office 365 MVPs will deliver 16 sessions and chair 7 of the “Experts Unplugged” panel sessions. This data might potentially change before the conference to accommodate the need to switch sessions, so be sure to check with the official MEC agenda at the conference.

The table below lists the sessions associated with MVPs. URLs to blogs and/or the MVP web site are provided to allow you to discover more about the individual MVPs.

Monday, March 30
1:15pm Using Exchange as a platform for Innovation (Exchange Web Services) Glen Scales
2:45pm Exchange Unified Messaging Deep Dive Paul Robichaux
4:30pm Modern Public Folders migration and Office 365 Siegfried Jagott
4:30pm Experts Unplugged: Exchange Top Issues Tony Redmond (chair)
Tuesday, April 1
9am Eliminate the Compliance Regulatory Nightmare J. Peter Bruzzese
9am Experts Unplugged: Public Folders and Site Mailboxes Siegfried Jagott (chair)
9am How to remote control Office 365 with Azure Martina Grom/Toni Pohl
10:45am Experts Unplugged: Transport and Hygiene Jeff Guillet (chair)/ Brian Reid
1:30pm Experts Unplugged: Exchange Online migrations Martina Grom (chair)
3pm Architect Exchange, smoking holes and long tails Nicolas Blank
3pm Experts Unplugged: High Availability and Storage Mike Crowley (chair)
4:45pm Experts Unplugged: Security End to End Mike Crowley (chair)
4:45pm Make Role Based Access Control work for you Bhargav Shukla
Wednesday, April 2
8:30am Build a hybrid configuration in less than 75 minutes Michael Van Horenbeeck
8:30am Exchange backup, restore, and disaster recovery Jaap Wesselius
8:30am Experts Unplugged: Transport and Hygiene (repeat) Jeff Guillet (chair)/ Brian Reid
8:30am Retention policies in the real world: Notes from the field Tony Redmond
10:45am Five real-life scenarios of Office 365 in education Jethro Seghers
10:45am Experts Unplugged: Exchange Deployment Jeff Guillet
1pm Cross forest migrations: Free or 3rd party tools Jason Sherry
2:45pm Exchange Online Archiving: Notes from the field Michael Van Horenbeeck
2:45pm Experts Unplugged: Architecture – Management and Monitoring Jeff Guillet (chair)
2:45pm Integration Exchange 2013 with Lync and SharePoint Bhargav Shukla
4:45pm Experts Unplugged: Exchange Top Issues (repeat) Tony Redmond
4:45pm Extending Data Loss Prevention for your business Brian Reid
4:45pm Load balancing Exchange and Lync Bhargav Shukla
4:45pm The UC Architects Live Michael Van Horenbeeck (chair)

Unfortunately Steve Goodman isn’t able to be with us at MEC due to unforeseen circumstances. I’m sure that his intended session covering off-boarding techniques for moving from Office 365 to on-premises Exchange 2013 would have been interesting, if not popular with those who are cloud-centric.

There are approximately 150 MVPs covering the Exchange and Office 365 specialities. I think 32 of the group will be at MEC (28 Exchange MVPs), including those listed above. All have strong opinions about technology. Be sure to ask then about your most difficult technical issues!

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When experts disagree, Exchange deployments stumble

I seldom leap in to criticize people who write about Exchange because a) everyone is perfectly entitled to their own opinion about technology (good or bad as that might be) and b) it’s up to the reader of any article to put its content into context with their own operational circumstances. In other words, never take anything as the absolute truth. Always think through a statement or recommendation in the light of your experience and the business and operational requirements that Exchange has to satisfy in your company.

But there’s always an exception that floats up to grab your attention, which leads me to an article written by File Systems MVP Brien Posey for the SearchExchange.techtarget.com site entitled “Four essential tasks to complete before migrating to Exchange 2013.” I believe that Brien was an Exchange MVP in the past but I can never remember him having very much to do with the product or interacting with the development group. I’m sure he does a great job with the File Systems group to help advance the cause of important technology such as Windows Explorer and maybe OneDrive and that kind of file system thingie. But I think he might not have fully grasped some of the finer details of Exchange 2013. Or maybe it’s just me (always a possibility).

For the third step outlined in his article, Brien recommends that you set up “a temporary virtual machine (VM) to use for your first Exchange Server 2013 deployment,” something that caused me to splutter on my cornflakes. The recommendation might be acceptable if this was your first deployment (as in a test organization that you set up to become accustomed to Exchange 2013) but as you read down through the piece, it becomes clear that this statement refers to the first Exchange 2013 server deployed into an existing Exchange 2010 organization. That’s a very different scenario. It would be nice if the text had been better edited for clarity. But then again, perhaps the get-out clause is the note that this approach does not follow “official Microsoft best practice,” whatever that might be. Perhaps Microsoft has both unofficial and official best practice that it gives to customers depending on how good they are at using Microsoft technology.

In any event, he goes on to explain that this is because the Exchange 2013 CAS doesn’t do very much at all and relies on the mailbox server role to execute the remote PowerShell commands used to manage Exchange. Absolutely spot-on. He then asserts that the “first Exchange 2013 server you bring into an Exchange 2010 organization must contain both the Client Access Server and the Mailbox Server roles” and notes that this is not a desirable configuration for organizations “that want to separate these roles.”

Well, I’m not sure what kind of Exchange deployments Brien has seen lately, but the only large-scale Exchange 2013 deployment that I can think of that uses dedicated server roles is Exchange Online, and we all know just how representative Office 365 is of any on-premises deployment. And it doesn’t make much sense for small-scale Exchange 2013 deployments to even consider the notion of dedicated CAS servers.

I’ll go further and say that anyone who does not deploy multirole Exchange 2013 servers needs to come up with a really good reason why not, if only because it is wasteful to go long the single-role route. In the case of Office 365, I understand the reason to be due to their unique operational and management requirements. Indeed, the inestimable Greg Taylor of Microsoft noted at Exchange Connections in 2013 that using single-role servers was wasteful and invariably required more servers to be deployed to achieve the same level of robustness and resilience within an organization.

I also disagree with Brien’s rather throwaway conclusion to his point when he says that you can “simply remove Exchange Server from your temporary VM.” Perhaps this simplification is unintended, but removing the first Exchange server of a new version from any organization requires a tad more care than a simple deletion. Things like arbitration mailboxes, for instance, need to be checked and moved to another database. Connectors might also need to be relocated. In short, a rush to delete might create an opportunity to rue.

Other assertions in the article also caused my eyebrows to quiver. The statement that “You should be able to install the cumulative update without first installing Exchange Server 2013” is interesting because one of the big advantages of a cumulative update is that it is a full-blown version of Exchange 2013. Thus, if you install Exchange 2013 SP1 (CU4 in reality), you perform one installation to created a fully-updated Exchange server. I guess this is an example where better editing would improve clarity. It would be regrettable if people read it and assumed that they had to first install Exchange 2013 RTM and then apply the latest cumulative update.

All of this goes to prove that the text in any article really does have to be examined, parsed, and assessed in the light of your experience. Never accept anything just because it’s written in an article published by a well-respected web site. All writers, myself included, have a nasty habit of getting things wrong from time to time (ah, the consequences of a slip of the keyboard…). Even my colleagues in the ranks of the File Systems MVPs.

I note that Brien is not on the list of MVPs who have registered to attend the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) in Austin (March 30-April 2). Seems like a missed opportunity to catch up on all that official Microsoft best practice… Looking forward to seeing you all there!

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OneNote suddenly got a lot more useful

The March 17 launch of OneNote for Mac received a lot of publicity, if only a fraction of what you can expect if Microsoft makes the expected announcement about the availability of Office for the iPad on March 27 (the same day that MacWorld 2014 opens in San Francisco). It looks like the OneNote team launched first to avoid the tsunami of commentary that will flow when Office for iPad appears, which seems like a sensible tactic.

I think that the publicity is merited because it’s obviously a good thing for both Microsoft and Apple users to have the chance to use OneNote available on platforms like the Mac, iPhone, and (in particular), the iPad. Using a cloud based service behind the scenes also seems to make a lot of sense.

I have played with OneNote ever since it was released but really only found it useful once I could start using handwriting input with the original Microsoft Surface. The combination of digital ink, OneNote, and the Surface form factor worked for me at events like technical conferences. But for most of the time, I tended to use Word to take notes and record things that I had to follow up. It’s hard to break the habit of a working lifetime.

But three developments this week enabled by the recent evolution in the OneNote ecosystem have changed my attitude.

The first is “Office Lens”, a Windows Phone application developed by Microsoft Research. This is described as an OneNote scanner for your pocket. The app is simple to use and leverages the fact that pretty well every Windows Phone device has a highly capable camera that can be used to capture details of documents, photographs, and whiteboards. There’s no news here as people have been using smartphones to record stuff like this for years. I’ve certainly used my Nokia Lumia 1020 for this purpose many times.

The app includes some processing to clean up the images that it captures, but the magic is the integration with OneNote that allows the images to be transmitted from the phone and stored in OneNote notebooks. I really like this feature because I think it will make it much easier to work with the captured information. Given that the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) is just around the corner, it’s a feature that I think I’ll be using a lot in the near future.

WindowsITPro.com article captured in OneNote via an IFTTT recipe

WindowsITPro.com article captured in OneNote via an IFTTT recipe

The second development is a really neat integration between OneNote and the IFTTT service that allows you to build “recipes” to capture information from different sources on the web and have that information directed to OneNote where it shows up as pages in your notebook. Rod Trent has posted a recipe to capture new articles as they are posted on WindowsITPro.com to provide a good example of how you might use this capability. There are many other recipes available for the “OneNote channel on IFTTT.com” that you might find helpful.

I also like the ability to send documents and other files to your personal OneNote account and have them automatically included in a notebook using OneNote mail services. It’s a simple but effective idea. The upside is that you can read the articles without connecting to a web site. The downside is that you’re essentially reading a screen scrape and elements such as hyperlinks in article text are unavailable.

Overall, lots of new capabilities have appeared that make OneNote a much better and compelling offering. I guess that’s part of the joy of technology – new stuff keeps on happening.

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Talking Exchange 2013 on RunAs Radio

Last week I chatted with Richard Campbell, the genial host of RunAs Radio, about the release of Exchange 2013 SP1, why companies wait for the first service pack to appear before they consider deploying a Microsoft server application, the best features of SP1, how technology developed to help Microsoft succeed with Office 365 is making its way into the on-premises world, and some aspects of the SAN versus JBOD debate. Phew!

As always, the 30 minutes that Richard likes to give to any topic flew by and we were left with many unspoken thoughts, some of which might surface in a future program. The program I contributed to is now available online. You can download an MP3 file for the program here.

It’s just a pity that the furore around the limitations now known for modern public folders had not erupted before Richard and I spoke as otherwise I might have had a few things (even a few rude words) to say on that point. No doubt we will return to that topic in the future.

RunAs Radio is a good way to keep up with issues in the world of Windows. A program is recorded weekly (the archives are available here) and covers anything from SharePoint to Hyper-V to private clouds. It’s worth a browse to see if you can find something that might help understanding some aspect of technology. Or at least it might give you something different to listen to during a commute, treadmill exercise, or boring corporate concall.

And if you’d prefer to access information about their programs through Facebook, there’s a RunAs Radio page too.

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Tony Redmond’s Guide to MEC 2014 sessions

Happy St. Patrick’s Day…

Some of you have been kind enough to ask what sessions I will be attending at the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC). I assume this is because you don’t want to bump into me, which is totally understandable.

With up to nine sessions to select for an individual time-slot, there’s usually a good selection of sessions available to cater for different interests. Before I list the sessions I plan to attend I should say that I consider the selection to be highly specific to my own needs and interests. In other words, I won’t go to sessions that I don’t think will be valuable to me. There are many reasons why this might be so, including a clash where I have had to select one from several good sessions. Or where I think I have sufficient information for the topic being presented in one session and decide to go to another because I know less about that subject and should therefore learn more (no not!).

The point is that you should analyze the session list and decide on the sessions you want to attend based on your own skills and experience and the need for knowledge to assist with whatever your company is doing with Exchange, Office 365, or Lync.

All that being said, here is the set of sessions that I’m considering attending:

Monday, March 31

The MEC keynote at 8:30am will no doubt deliver a mixture of pumped-up enthusiasm from the product group as they outline what they’re working on and the direction they plan to take. Not much hard information will be gleaned here but it’s a useful start to the conference that allows you to assess what might be important and where Microsoft might be placing some big bets.

10:30am Introducing “Oslo,” the Office Graph, and the Future of Enterprise Social: I’ve already commented on enterprise social networking in this blog and have a real interest in the topic because I’ve been dabbling with it for 25 years. Microsoft made a big thing of the “Oslo” application and the Office Graph at SPC14, the recent SharePoint Conference, and I plan to listen to what they have to say about it here.

1:15pm: Collaboration with Site Mailboxes: Exchange and SharePoint together: I might be in the 0.05% of the user community who actually use site mailboxes and think that I have a reasonable understanding of how everything hangs together between Exchange 2013, SharePoint 2013, and Outlook 2013 (and some of the problems that exist). The process of configuring on-premises Exchange and SharePoint to make site mailboxes work is horrible and I’d like to see changes here (obviously, things are much easier when you use site mailboxes in Office 365). Hopefully I’ll hear about that and how Microsoft plans to make site mailboxes really useful in this session.

2:45pm Exchange Server 2013 Tips & Tricks: This session is presented by Scott Schnoll, who clocks more mileage in the back of long-haul jets than I care to think about in his voyages around the world to every Microsoft-related conference he can reach. Scott is bound to have picked up some new stories on his odyssey, so I plan to drop in to hear what he has to say.

I also see that 2:45pm brings another attempt to convince people that backups might be less required now than in the past with “To Backup or Not to Backup” featuring the avuncular Tim McMichael. Using Native Exchange Protection (the DAG, etc.) is certainly a way to run without backups, but unfortunately we live in a world where applications don’t often dictate backup policy, especially inside large arguments. Perhaps Tim will have new and compelling arguments.

Paul Robichaux is up against it in the same time slot when he enthuses about “Exchange Unified Messaging Deep Dive.” There’s no doubt that more people than ever before are interested in Unified Messaging, especially in the connection between Exchange and Lync, and Paul is the right guy to listen to if you need help to understand how the different parts interlink. He might even have some copies of his “Exchange 2013 Inside Out: Connectivity, Clients, and UM” book to give away. As if anyone needs to be bribed to hear Paul speak!

4:30pm Experts Unplugged: Exchange Top Issues – What are they and does anyone care or listen? I’m chairing this session. It brings together some of the folks who do sterling work to resolve support issues that reach the development group (such as the recent problems with modern public folders). This group really have their fingers on the pulse of the product and understand the pain points that customers encounter during real-life deployments. This group has also driven the development of some wonderful tools that have made a very real difference to the way we work with Exchange, like the famous Remote Connectivity Analyzer. This is a question and answer session, so it should be a great opportunity for people to come along and contribute by sharing issues that they consider important for Microsoft to address.

At the same time, MVP Siegfried Jagott and Microsoft product manager Kanika Ramji will tackle the “interesting” topic of modern public folders when they talk about “Modern Public Folders migration and Office 365.” I hope that Kanika has some answers to share about the limitations in modern public folders that now pose a very real problem for companies that want to complete their migration to Exchange 2013 but cannot because they are unable to move their old-style public folder hierarchy, folders, and data to the new implementation. There might be some sparks at this session and I’m actually sorry that I will have to miss it.

The MEC attendee party takes place between 6 pm and 9 pm in Rainey Street, which is apparently a nighttime hot spot in Austin. Some insight on what happens in Austin is available here. Those presenting on Tuesday will hope that attendees won’t imbibe too heavily before turning up for their sessions. Farts and belches do carry in packed session rooms, or so I am informed.

Tuesday, April 1

9am Engineers vs Mechanics – the evolving role of IT with Office 365: The advent of the cloud and the impact of services like Office 365 mean that those working in IT have to consider what role they will play as the new landscape gradually unfolds. For some it will be easy – they will stay working with on-premises applications for as long as they can and accept that this work will decline as a percentage of the overall market. Others will embrace the change and either run pure cloud or hybrid environments. Skills and knowledge change depending on the choice that you make. This session is intended to discuss some of the issues. It should be interesting.

10:45am: Future look at Data Loss Prevention (DLP): I’ve written a fair amount about DLP recently (an overview and an article on its document fingerprinting feature) so I am interested in finding out what Microsoft plans in this area.

But I have a conflict at this time because “The Latest on High Availability and Site Resilience” session is on at the same time. I might have to toss a coin on the day as this topic lies at the core of Exchange (both on-premises and cloud). The probability is that I’ll end up here.

If you’re an Office 365 customer and don’t have to get your hands dirty with all the details of server setup, DAG management, and so on, this time slot might be better used by attending the “Field Notes – Supporting Office 365 customers.” Cynics might say that this session will simply cover the techniques used by front-line support staff to close calls fast but I think it has the potential to be interesting, if only to understand Microsoft’s support methodology for Office 365 a little better.

1:30pm Exchange Storage for Insiders: Microsoft has been on a crusade to reduce I/O since Exchange 2003 and has made great progress in that time. These kind of sessions are unique to MEC because they allow you to hear detail that you probably won’t get elsewhere (which is why I like MEC rather than TechEd).

The “Everything an IT Pro needs to know about Apps for Outlook or Exchange” session at the same time might appeal to those who wonder how the new app model can deliver business benefits – or justify an upgrade to Outlook 2013. Attractive as this topic might be, I think I’ll be staying with storage.

The same slot has been allocated to Jeff Mealiffe, who will discuss “Exchange 2013 Sizing Scenarios.” Jeff is Mr Performance and Sizing when it comes to Exchange and he also recently lifted his head above the parapet to deflect some inbound arrows from the supporters of NFS when he helped me understand why the Exchange product group continues not to support NFS storage for Exchange deployments. Perhaps the NFS vendors plan to hold a demonstration outside Jeff’s session. More positively, I hope that the two sides will find a way to work together for mutual benefit.

And proving that it is sometimes really difficult to decide what sessions to attend, I am severely tempted by “Introducing the Clutter View in Outlook Web App.” The description of the session “investments… to help users manage their inboxes more efficiently” might make  you think that this is going to be a marketing-type session to trumpet the many ways that OWA enables careful users to exercise pedantic control over their inboxes. But knowing one of the presenters (Jim Edelen) and some of the work he has been doing over the years, I think this might be a hidden gem of a session. Of course, I could be wrong, as has been known in the past.

3pm: Behind the curtain: How we run Exchange Online: I think I have a fair grasp of how Microsoft runs the service but it’s always interesting to hear how they present the details, especially to a technical audience. Exchange Online is the largest Exchange deployment in the world but it’s a very special environment. Despite the undoubted charm of the speaker (Vivek Sharma), you should understand that and take any recommendations or tips with a pinch of salt because they might be useful in your situation. That being said, what’s not to like about listening to how Microsoft plans, deploys, and operates an environment like Office 365?

I might miss the Exchange Online show and go to the Experts Unplugged: High Availability and Storage session instead, if only to see how the developers explain some of Exchange’s HA mysteries in words of one syllable or less. And to hear HA luminaries such as Grieg Thiel, Abram Jackson and Matt Gossage too, of course.

My selection for the 3pm Tuesday slot might also be influenced by the fact that Greg Taylor is talking at the same time, covering the topic of “Publishing Exchange – which TLA should you choose?”  Greg is always good value at conferences and has been known to wax lyrical about topics as diverse as the alimentary canal arrangements for pachyderms compared to Exchange protocol processing, but I think he’s going to lose out to the other sessions here.

4:45pm: Make Role Based Access Control (RBAC) work for you: Bhargav Shukla speaks about his second most favorite topic (load balancing of all of Exchange’s protocols is his #1). He usually makes a lot of sense and is a pretty pragmatic individual, so this session on a generally badly understood part of Exchange should be valuable.

The same time slot sees Jeff Mealiffe take to the stage again to discuss “Exchange 2013 Virtualization Best Practice.” This is a topic that stirs strong feelings on the part of the NFS community, who feel that the Exchange product group has constructed some artificial arguments to stop customers using NFS-based storage with Exchange 2007, 2010, and 2013. As I attempted to set out last month, there are good points on both sides. Perhaps Jeff will have a more than usually proactive audience at this session!

The usual “MAPI Hour” takes place between 6 pm and 7 pm.

Wednesday, April 2

8:30am Retention Policies in the real world: I have spoken at every MEC event since the first in 1996 and this is my formal session. I’ll cover how MRM V2 differs from managed folders, the role of the Managed Folder Assistant, retention policies and the various tags that are used, how to design and implement policies, and tell a fair number of stories, not all of which will be relevant. To ease the pain (or cause more), I’ll bring along a few copies of my Exchange 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox and High Availability book (which covers retention policies in fair detail) and give them away to attendees.

10:15am: Exchange Design Concepts and Best Practice: Best practice is such an ethereal concept because it changes so quickly. The notions of what is best to do evolves with understanding, experience, and knowledge and it is challenging to set down what best practice is at any time. Boris Lokhvitsky, who’s been around Exchange long enough to have forgotten more best practice than others have encountered, is due to deliver this session.

10:15am also sees the attempt by MVP Jeff Guillet to corral the talents of Ross Smith IV, Scott Schnoll, Greg Taylor, Brian Day, and Jeff Mealiffe in “Experts Unplugged: Exchange Deployment.” It seems strange to me that the chair of this session is the only person who is paid for helping customers deploy Exchange. All the others are members of the product group and, as such, have a particular view of how Exchange should be deployed that might just be compromised by the slings and arrows of outrageous reality. I would have preferred to see a more balanced set of views represented on this panel. It certainly seems to be overly biased towards the product group view of the world as it stands. Perhaps Microsoft will rebalance the panel membership at MEC.

The “Experts Unplugged: OWA and Mobility” session on at the same time is something that anyone interested in supporting mobile devices with Exchange should consider. Microsoft shipped their OWA for Devices app (for iOS) last July to demonstrate how they could leverage OWA’s new “morphing” user interface introduced in Exchange 2013. I don’t know if Microsoft will announce OWA for Android at MEC, but I suspect that something of this nature will happen. And if it doesn’t (or even if it does), then this sounds like a good place to ask questions about the plans that Microsoft has to support mobile devices with OWA (rather than ActiveSync).

And speaking of mobility, one of the reasons why Microsoft has introduced the new MAPI over HTTP protocol is that the existing RPC layer is not particularly brilliant at coping with the stresses and strains of on-off network connectivity as you might experience when hopping across different wireless networks. The “Outlook Connectivity: Current and Future” session (also at 10:15am) should explain why the change is happening and what you need to do to plan for it in terms of network changes and client deployments.

1pm: Experts Unplugged: Data Loss Prevention: I might use this session to resolve my clash from Tuesday. It will be a different side of DLP but that’s OK because a discussion of real-life experience with a technology is as valuable as hearing about product futures (not all of which will come to pass).

2:45pm: Experts Unplugged: Architecture – Management and Monitoring: Managed Availability exerts a pervasive influence over all components in Exchange 2013. It’s a subsystem developed for cloud services that delivers great value to on-premises deployments, assuming that you understand what Managed Availability is all about and it doesn’t go wrong. Part of the problem is that Managed Availability badly needs a more approachable user interface (IMHO). I’ll be along to this session to listen to how people are coping with Managed Availability and the other ways that Exchange monitors itself.

Another interesting 2:45pm session is Neil Johnson’s “Exchange Network Client Bandwidth Calculator V2.” Understanding just how much bandwidth clients are likely to consume on a network is always difficult because of the very salient fact that it all depends on what the user does. And who knows what users do? In any case, I hear that Neil might have some data to report about the new MAPI-over-HTTP protocol and how it compares to its RPC-based predecessor. This should be a great session for those who have to worry about bandwidth.

4:45pm: Experts Unplugged: Exchange Top Issues – What are they and does anyone care or listen? This is a repeat of Monday’s 4:30pm session with the caveat that by now people should have accumulated even more concerns and problems that they want to discuss in the area of support. It could get ugly!

I should also mention that my friends from the UC Architects are taping a live session at 4:45pm on Wednesday and therefore clash with my last session. This is a good bunch of technologists who get together to create a biweekly podcast covering topics of interest to the Exchange, Lync, and Office 365 community. I do not know who the line-up of guests will be for this show, but if it’s half as good as the session we taped at the 2013 Exchange Connections event last October, it should be worthwhile.

Speaking of which, the 2014 Exchange Connections event will take place in the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas (a much better and more modern location than the Mandalay Bay, where Connections has been run for what seems like the last century). Potential speakers are currently submitting proposals for sessions they’d like to present at this year’s event (September 15-19). Please submit a proposal if you have an idea that you’d like to present, or just let me know (post a reply here) if you have a topic that you’d like to hear about at Connections.

The Expo

No technology conference worth its name lacks an exhibition space where vendors do their best to convince attendees of the wonders of their technology. MEC is no different and has attracted a good line-up of companies working with Exchange, Lync, Office 365, and SharePoint. I plan to spend some time with vendors to catch up with what they’ve been doing recently and to understand their pain points, such as how they’re coping with the influence of the cloud.

So there you have it. Tony’s current MEC schedule, or at least the sessions that I hope to attend. Have fun building your own schedule to reflect your own needs and interests. There’s a lot to choose from.

MEC being what it is, I can only guarantee that I will get to the sessions that I am chairing or presenting. Too much other stuff happens at MEC that might interfere with my ability to get to a session, like interesting conversations with Microsoft people or third-party software vendors. I can always catch up with technology after MEC but it’s difficult to replicate those conversations, so they take priority.

Have a great MEC!

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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