Exchange Unwashed Digest – July 2014

Another month has gone by and it was a busy one for my “Exchange Unwashed” blog on I published thirteen posts covering everything from the thorny question of just how many paid subscribers Microsoft has for Office 365 to some lingering system registry entries for long-departed Exchange 2013 servers. Here’s what happened in July 2014:

Office 365 by the numbers – an ever-increasing trajectory (July 31): Microsoft does not publish details of how many subscribers connect to Office 365 so you have to make some educated guesses as to how they’re doing. The most recent data was a report of a $2.5 billion annual run rate given at the recent Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC). Plugging that into an Excel worksheet indicates that Office 365 now has 9.53% of the installed Exchange base. But the trajectory is upward and the installed base is moving. The question is how quickly it will move over the next few years and how much will end up in the cloud. Recent legal debate and U.S. rulings that Microsoft has to provide copies of email kept on Office 365 servers in Ireland won’t help reassure non-U.S. customers that their data is safe in the cloud, so it will be interesting to track how things evolve over the next few months.

Yammer – a technology still looking for a solution? (July 29): I have been doing my best to use Yammer over the last few months to gain an insight into its value. So far I haven’t found too much, at least not over my existing tools. But Microsoft is working hard to integrate Yammer with their other Office servers so things might get better. Then again, they might not…

Lingering entries for long-deleted servers (July 24): Exchange 2013 is pretty good at cleaning up after itself, but it does leave references to long-departed servers in the system registry on servers. And this causes Managed Availability to have a little fit. Just a little one.

The changing nature of email NDRs (July 22): A heck of a lot of non-delivery notifications are issued by email systems daily. The question is whether you can adjust the content of the NDRs to make the recipients better understand why the email didn’t get through. This post looks at some NDRs from common email systems and concludes which is the best.

Challenges await as Microsoft dumps MEC, TechEd (and other conferences) for a mega-event (July 21): It looks like many of us will be heading to Chicago, IL in the first week of May 2015 to attend Microsoft’s mega-IT technology event. The sad thing is that this event replaces the like of MEC, which I enjoyed immensely. The good thing is that it puts a bullet through TechEd, which I did not. We’ll just have to wait and see how good the new event is and whether Microsoft can deal with the organizational and logistical challenges that await.

Protect users by suppressing Outlook’s conflict resolution reports (July 17): Outlook generates conflict resolution reports when it encounters a problem with an item, such as when two clients operate on the same item at roughly the same time. Normally things go smoothly and Outlook resolves the conflict, but then it has to tell the user that a conflict existed and what was done to resolve the issue. And the problem is that most users don’t care and don’t understand the report. So do everyone a favor and suppress the reports. Outlook will still do its thing and users won’t be bothered. It’s a win-win all round.

Outlook Apps – a new approach worth considering (July 15): The history of Exchange APIs is studded with many failures. Things like CDO Routing Objects – a nice idea but badly implemented and poorly supported. Now we have Outlook Apps, which really seem to be a nice thing because they work across multiple platforms and come with a lot of example code to get you going. Worth looking at!

Microsoft Learning insults Exchange professionals with simply awful video (July 14): I received a lot of feedback after I posted this note about a video that I thought was really bad, mostly because it was a very unprofessional way (IMHO) to treat an important topic. Thankfully Microsoft Learning agreed and they took the video down. See what you think.

Inconsistent searches all too commonly seen in Exchange (July 10). Last week a ZDNet contributor posted a note explaining why he had junked Outlook after many years and had moved to Gmail. The poor search facilities available in Outlook and the inconsistent results that are achieved when searching online and offline were part of his problem. The good news is that Microsoft is aware that they need to do better with search. This can’t happen soon enough.

Codename “Oslo” is now the Delve product (July 9): Much hype accompanied the announcement that Microsoft was working on a product designed to make better sense of all of the information floating around corporate IT systems, especially in places like Outlook mailboxes and SharePoint document libraries. The new product was codenamed Oslo. Now it’s Delve and it’s coming to Office 365 users by the end of 2014. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft resolves issues like privacy and inadvertent disclosure of information when Delve appears.

Security Design Change for Office 365 Public Folders Causes Inbound Email to NDR (July 8): Microsoft said that they were committed to providing better up-front information about upcoming changes to Office 365 through their online roadmap, which is really very good. But then we’ve had a series of small but irritating changes that no one seemed to realize should have been communicated. This one was a good change in that it increased security for mail-enabled public folders and restored parity with Exchange 2010, but it broke stuff for customers without warning, which is never good.

Two recent Microsoft changes affecting Office 365; one reversed, one partially (July 3): Another set of unannounced changes. The first was when Microsoft took over domains operated by and caused mail routing to break for legitimate customers. The second was a botched attempt to introduce new administrative roles within Office 365. The No-IP situation is now resolved and the new roles have been withdrawn – but they’ll be back.

Directory flaw led to Exchange Online outage (July 1): The 7-hour Exchange Online outage on June 24 was caused by the directory infrastructure failing to keep pace with authentication requests. The issue revealed a problem that Microsoft is fixing and it’s also a warning for on-premises customers – if Active Directory goes bad, lots of strange and screwy things happen with Exchange. Period.

I can’t pretend that I will be as productive in August. Vacation beckons.

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A warmed-over MCSE program is no pinnacle

Apparently the head of certifications at Microsoft (Tim Sneath) has said that Microsoft is going to make the MCSE exams “harder for everyone” by introducing new types of questions for which answers are harder to memorize. In other words, they want to eliminate the “certification by rote learning”, brain dumps, and question sharing activities that have made MCSE certification far less valuable than it should be.

Of course, this aspiration comes from the same organization (Microsoft Learning – MSL) that eliminated the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) and Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) programs last year, much to the dismay of those who had invested large amounts of time, energy, and money into attaining those accreditations, both of which were firmly based in knowledge acquisition and the ability to put that knowledge into effective practice. I thought that the decision was a bad one then and nothing has happened since to make me change that view.

MSL promised that they would look at creating another “pinnacle” to replace MCA and MCM. In this case, the pinnacle would be the top of the Microsoft accreditation stack and recognize the best of the best in the various technical disciplines. The good thing that could have happened here is an expansion of the numbers who achieved the peak, probably at the cost of some weakening of the high standards demanded by MCM and MCA. I would not have had a problem with this because not everyone can afford the time and cash commitment implicit in travelling to Redmond for MCM training or to go through the time-intense nature of MCA board interviews. It would have been good had a solution been found to allow an MCM-lite accreditation be rolled out on a worldwide basis at reduced cost. Of course, in order to be credible as a “pinnacle”, that accreditation would have had to be maintained at a much higher level than the average MCSE. A 90% MCM would have been a good goal.

However, the problem here is that even an MCM-lite program would have taken a lot of resources and brainpower to deliver. Even if Microsoft had found a good set of tutors available to deliver MCM training around the world, huge effort would have been required to develop the training – and to keep the knowledge refreshed in a world where change occurs on a quarterly cadence. I’m sure that budget was a huge obstacle to overcome.

It seems therefore that MSL has elected to attempt to tweak the MCSE program and force standards higher. Increasing the complexity of the questions asked is a more cost-efficient way of raising standards because the work can be done centrally and then deployed through existing testing mechanisms. MSL can say that they are responding to the needs of customers and IT professionals alike and all is well in the world.

But it really isn’t. Although some increase in the effort required to attain MCSE certification might happen initially, the ecosystem that surrounds Microsoft accreditation will respond. Organizations who deliver training focused on passing MCSE exams will flex and change to accommodate the new testing regime. Question dump sites will continue. People will continue to find ways to game the system. And even if MSL continue to tweak and improve the exams and testing methodologies, they will really only be staying one step ahead of others who make money today from MCSE training and want to continue to do so in the future. It’s a hard place to be.

At the end of the day, I don’t think this approach will improve the level of technical competence of certified individuals very much at all. It might move the needle a tad but it’s hardly going to represent a new pinnacle for the certification stack. On the upside, MSL look good because they are responding to concerns about the MCSE program and are doing so in a cost-effective manner, so the people who read program reviews and monitor budget spreadsheets will be happy.

It’s sad, but MSL seems set on a path that does not accommodate the 1% or so of the technical community who wish to extend themselves and become the best of the best. MCM and MCA were flawed programs  but they represented an obvious and well-earned pinnacle for Microsoft certification. A warmed over MCSE (2014 model) will not.

A missed opportunity…

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And now for something completely different – Monty Python Live

Py8I’m sure many of you don’t appreciate the humour of Monty Python because it is very much an acquired taste. But those of us who were brought up in the black-and-white TV era appreciate the wit and insightful comment that Monty Python brought to the screens at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, not to mention their successful “Holy Grail” and “Life of Brian” films.

All of which meant that the announcement of some live concerts at the O2 in London created a unique opportunity to see five of the six Pythons in action… So I went with my two sons and a friend and am terribly happy that I did.

Four Yorkshiremen

Four Yorkshiremen

This was the first time I had been to the O2 and it’s quite a location, especially if you arrive there via the Emirates SkyLine.

O2 London from the Emirates SkyLine

O2 London from the Emirates SkyLine

We attended the second Monty Python Live (Mostly) concert (July 2). I had read the reviews of the first night and discovered that most of the critics were unhappy because the show was basically a rerun of many popular sketches including “Four Yorkshiremen” (above). However, that’s exactly what I expected and my view appeared to be shared by the vast majority of the 16,000 crowd, not many of whom looked for new breakthrough comedy from the 70+ year old stars.

Lots of people arrived dressed up as their favourite characters. Many red-caped cardinals were to be seen along with a group of Gumbys complete with their most precious wellington boots. I also saw one nattily-dressed gentleman who had forgotten his trousers – or simply wanted to show off what nice underclothes he had.

Paying for an argument

Paying for an argument

The show developed very much as expected with famous sketches being interspersed by some energetic song and dance routines that gave the Pythons a rest.

Lumberjack song

Lumberjack song

I thought Michael Palin was terrific with Eric Idle a close second. Palin’s delivery of the “Lumberjack song” was great as was his delivery in the Spanish Inquisition. Idle’s singing was excellent too and he boasted a tasteful number in black lingerie too.

English judges

English judges

John Cleese was a larger, better padded, and much-rounder version of the younger Cleese who is no longer capable of performing silly walks. That didn’t stop his wit showing through, notably in the argument sketch.

Argument sketch

Argument sketch

However, the best moment of the show came when the Cleese and Palin reunited for the Pet Shop sketch and both managed to forget their lines, much to the delight of the audience and their mutual amusement. It was quite something to note how many of the audience were able to recite the lines about the famous parrot as the sketch developed. Truly these were true believers.

Lovely Parrot that has ceased to be and is no more...

Lovely Parrot that has ceased to be and is no more…

I thought it interesting that Terry Gillam took a more up-front role in the sketches, probably because there’s a certain limit to the number of cartoons that can be deployed in a live show. He popped up as the redoubtable Gumby in the flower arrangement sketch and later on as Cardinal Fang of the Spanish Inquisition. All good stuff

Flower arranging

Flower arranging

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition

All of the sketches I anticipated showed up and were a delight. In fact, the whole show was a barrel of laughs from start to finish.

Australian philosphy

Australian philosphy

The live shows come to an end on July 20. However, this show will be broadcast to cinemas around the world on that date and is also due for rebroadcast on July 23 and 24. I might just attend it again.

For those who are interested, all of the photos shown with the exception of the SkyLine shot were taken from the general body of the audience using my son’s Canon S120 digital camera. As obvious here, the low-light performance of this camera was pretty impressive for something that easily fits into a pocket! I used the camera on my Nokia Lumia 1020 to take the photo from the SkyLine.

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Automatic mailbox move requests in Exchange 2013

Soon after writing about the need to clean out lingering mailbox move requests for Exchange 2010, I requested the developers to add the ability to remove move requests automatically after a certain period. After all, it’s a royal pain to find that you can’t move a mailbox just because an ancient move request still exists.

As I was researching new features to write about in Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox and High Availability, I was delighted to discover that a solution exists in Exchange 2013. It’s taken me a while to comment about the solution, but better late than never (I guess).

If you look at the parameters for the cmdlets that control how the Mailbox Replication Service (MRS) moves mailbox data, you’ll find that they all support the new CompletedRequestAgeLimit parameter. These cmdlets are:

Note that the New-PublicFolderMigrationRequest cmdlet, which is used to migrate old-style public folders to their modern counterparts on either Exchange 2013 on-premises or Exchange Online, does not support an age limit parameter. This is very logical because public folder migrations can last for an extended period. Make sure that you read my notes about Exchange 2013 public folder migration if you haven’t started this process yet.

If you don’t pass a value for the CompletedRequestAgeLimit parameter, the default of 30 days is used. And once this period expires, MRS cleans up by removing the request automatically. Of course, Exchange 2013 includes the migration service and mailbox moves are now processed in batches that are controlled by the migration service, but mailbox move requests live on underneath the cover and are the prompts for MRS to move mailboxes.

Some might ask why it took Microsoft so long before they decided to auto-expire mailbox move requests. My theory is that it’s yet more evidence of the increasing attention paid to automation in Exchange 2013 that is brought about by the massive increase in scale seen in Office 365. Consider just how many mailbox moves occur between Exchange Online databases. Now consider just how much of a royal pain in the rear end it would be if all of the mailbox move requests had to be cleaned up manually. Automatic request expiration makes a huge amount of sense when you’re dealing with millions of mailboxes, just like it makes sense if you have just a few to look after.

Another interesting new parameter is Priority, which allows you to provide MRS with an indication of the importance of a job. MRS uses the priority along with other factors such as target server health (as measured by Managed Availability) to decide which job to process next. The default value is “Normal” and it extends from “Emergency” (highest) to “Lowest”.

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Why it is easier for Microsoft to innovate inside Office 365

My last post discussed the fact that an increasing level of integration to create new features by the Office server products creates some issues for hosting companies (other than Office 365) and on-premises customers. At least in the case of Exchange, Microsoft uses the same code base for its cloud and on-premises products, so why does innovation appear in the cloud and not flow through to the on-premises versions?

I think the answer lies in three reasons. First, Microsoft obviously has the resources necessary to design, develop, commission, and operate all of the necessary components drawn from the different products to deliver more complex software than before. On-premises customers and other hosting companies might find it cost-prohibitive to embark on similar integration projects because they don’t see how the effort involved can be justified.

On the other hand, Microsoft is obviously in the software engineering business so complex projects are in their bloodstream and the benefits achieved from the work can be measured in different ways such as investment in future software directions, creating a competitive advantage over Google, something different to trumpet in the market, and so on.

Second, the Office 365 fabric that Microsoft has created allows them to test and refine new features with relatively small communities of users before gradually rolling out software upgrades en masse across the world. This is the approach taken, for instance, with the transition from RPC over HTTP to MAPI over HTTP currently under way within Office 365.

Microsoft has also indicated that they will need to make frequent and ongoing updates to the Office Graph after it is first made available to Office 365 customers to tune and refine the machine learning algorithms that discover the connections displayed by the “Delve” product based on graph data.

By comparison, when Microsoft delivers a new feature to on-premises customers or the hosting community, that feature had better be fully baked. If it isn’t and flaws appear, Microsoft will have a terrific support load to deal with. Getting updates out to the installed base is easier (in some ways) than before given the new servicing model for Exchange 2013 that delivers quarterly cumulative updates, but that’s nothing like the ability that Microsoft has to tweak and tweak again to refine new features running inside Office 365.

Finally, Microsoft does not have to deal with all of the complications that occur inside on-premises deployments when they design something for Office 365. Although the Office 365 infrastructure is massive and growing like a weed, it is relatively simple and extremely well-understood because every component is standardized. There is no notion of being able to install a third party application because it is requested by one or more Office 365 tenants. No one gets to vote about Office 365 delivers. If something is not in the playbook, it is not available. In short, Office 365 is a highly defined infrastructure that delivers a highly consistent environment for software developers to design against.

These three factors make it possible for Microsoft to take on very complex engineering projects like Delve. The question is whether the same brains who come up with these features can turn their minds to how to package the resulting software in a way that it can be run outside Office 365.

Using the same code base does not automatically mean that the same features apply to every version that flows from the code.  Branching happens. We shall just have to see whether the gap that is now appearing between cloud and on-premises versions closes over time or if the cloud will always have the upper hand in terms of new features.

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Exchange Unwashed Digest – June 2014

June 2014 was an interesting month for my “Exchange Unwashed” blog on as the material covered was pretty diverse as we went from platforms like Azure to storage firmware and all points in between. See what you think!

Why running Exchange on Azure is an unattractive proposition (June 26): Quite a few people are enamoured of the prospect of running Exchange on Azure – or Amazon Web Services for that matter – but I am not quite so sure. It is not a matter of technology but rather of economics. You can certainly make Exchange run on Azure or AWS but will it pay? And if you really want to run Exchange in the cloud, don’t better alternatives already exist?

Keeping up to date with what’s been happening with Set-MailboxDatabase (June 24): Examining the individual parameters of a commonly-used PowerShell cmdlet might seem like a silly thing to do, and so it is if you do it for sport. But you can find some interesting nuggets, which is what happened when I found that one of the cmdlet’s parameters has been deprecated in Exchange 2013 and a new one simply doesn’t work as it’s supposed to. But it will in Exchange 2013 CU6, or so I hear.

Is Microsoft really saying “don’t virtualize” Exchange? (June 19): Microsoft publishes a “preferred architecture” for Exchange 2013, which is nice, except that it doesn’t accommodate virtualization. “So what?”, you might say, if you prefer a nice physical server. But there are those who would virtualize everything, including their cat, and the preferred architecture came as a surprise.

Nothing to fear in MAPI over HTTP (June 17): I wrote a long feature article about the transition from RPC over HTTP to MAPI over HTTP when Microsoft first announced the technology. This post discusses some of the concerns that have surfaced in the meantime and why I am not too concerned about them.

OWA for Android debuts but leaves on-premises customers waiting (June 12): Microsoft announced the second leg of their OWA for Devices strategy at MEC last March but it then took them two months to provide working code for Android devices. And that code only works for some Android devices (small screen, no pads) and only if you have an Office 365 account. So the release was a bit of a damp squib. At least Microsoft provided a web page for people to use for complaints.

Encrypting email in transit makes a heap of sense (June 10): Google launched an initiative to embarrass email domains into encrypting messages in transit. This seems like an excellent idea. The good news is that Exchange has used opportunistic TLS for quite some time and that Office 365 encrypts mail in transit too. But you might not, so it’s a good topic to consider.

How flawed firmware can really give your DAG some replication headaches (June 5): The storage team at IBM did us all a favour by sending out the world’s most obscure and badly written support bulletin (well, a candidate for the prize anyway). The serious side of the bulletin told how a change to a storage controller configuration could have very bad side-effects for Database Availability Groups. Not what you want to read on a Monday morning…

The cyborgs are coming or how Microsoft “Clutter” will help you to do a better job of processing email (June 3): I’m a big fan of machine learning and the Clutter feature is based on that technology. It’s designed to help remove unimportant messages from your Inbox so that you can get right to processing the most important email. Unfortunately it looks like Clutter will only appear in Office 365 for now, but I still think that it’s pretty cool.

On to July. Vacation season might be in full swing but there are still posts and articles to write. Technology never stops evolving.

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Increasing Office 365 integration poses challenges for hosters and on-premises customers

It seems to me that a fundamental transformation is occurring within the Office 365 datacenters that has some consequences for those who offer alternate hosted services as well as on-premises customers. And it’s all to do with the level of integration that Microsoft is now building into their Office servers.

Looking back on the past two “waves” (or generations) of Office servers, we see a progression from almost no integration in the 2010 (wave 14) releases to a perceivable attempt to make integration more of a priority in the 2013 (wave 15) releases. Perhaps it’s following a “better together” theme, but more likely the simple realization that customers become more embedded into the Microsoft server infrastructure if they use more of the functionality incorporated into the software.

Thus, Exchange 2013 and SharePoint 2013 give us the wonders of site mailboxes and integrated eDiscovery across the repositories, with Data Loss Prevention (DLP) soon to be added to SharePoint Online. Exchange 2013 and SharePoint 2013 share the Search Foundation to make cross-platform searches feasible, a development that is a good long-term step even if it creates difficulties in that it is not possible to conduct a search across mailboxes that reside on servers running different versions of Exchange.

Which brings us to what’s happening in Wave 16, the next generation of Office servers that will gradually appear in breadcrumb format in the online services, dribbled out in a series of incremental updates over the next year before code is assembled in a form that can be delivered to on-premises customers sometime in late 2015 (my best guess).

“Oslo”, now named Delve, is one of the headline features due to appear in Office 365 by the end of 2014. Beta software has not yet been made available so any assessment of what Delve is comes from descriptions provided online or in Microsoft presentations. From these it seems like the technology called Office Graph that provides the information accessible through Delve depends on being able to retrieve information from repositories like Exchange and SharePoint and meld data together in such a way as to be able to present the most important items to users based on knowledge acquired of end-user connections and activities refined by a healthy dose of machine-learning.

What’s clear here is that the underpinnings of Delve depend on a lot of integration. And that the integration is possible in Office 365 because Microsoft owns the complete environment. Knowing that everything they depend on will be in place and connected together is a different prospect for software engineers when it comes to designing new features. It opens up a new vista of possibilities.

In the past, software engineers could not assume that any necessary component was in place, which meant that invariably complicated installation and configuration instructions had to be written to explain how to knit different products together to accomplish the intended goal. The process of configuring Exchange 2013 and SharePoint 2013 to make site mailboxes possible is an example.

Now, the Office 365 engineers know exactly what software is available down to a specific build number and can therefore construct their software with a freedom that was never previously available. It’s a world of difference that enables complexity like the Office Graph.

Being able to use features enabled through very complex software without fearing that some obscure configuration glitch will cause problems is also great for end users. It also binds people more tightly to the service and makes it harder for them to move elsewhere, which is precisely the reason why Microsoft creates the feature.

But features like Delve create all manner of questions for those who don’t use Office 365. For instance, will Microsoft make the necessary components available to third party hosting companies or will these features remain a competitive advantage for Office 365? It’s reasonable that Microsoft would have some period of exclusivity both to have an advantage and to fully sort the software, but I’m sure that the third party hosting companies will view a growing functionality gap with Office 365 with some dismay because the gap makes their offering less competitive and complete. It’s also something that the competition authorities in different jurisdictions might review.

The same functionality gap seems likely to occur for on-premises customers too. At least, Microsoft has revealed that Office Graph won’t be in the next major version of Exchange. Again, there’s a certain reasonability about the position because not every customer will want to invest in the resources necessary to deploy something like the Office Graph. It therefore follows that Microsoft would be better off dedicating engineering resources to more prosaic but widely-used features than assigning them to create the installation and configuration procedures necessary for an on-premises deployment.

We can treat Office Graph as a one-off exception and assuage the fears of hosting providers and on-premises customers will not be left behind in terms of functionality. But I think the integration possibilities that now exist within the Office 365 servers will present Microsoft with the opportunity to deliver future features that will be unique to the Microsoft cloud. It just makes sense.

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