Tony Redmond’s Guide to MEC 2014 – Slicing and dicing the data

One of the worse things that can happen at a technology conference is to turn up for a session that you really want to attend only to find that the room is packed out and you can’t even get inside the door. It’s only slightly better if you can get in and then have to spend 75 minutes standing – or having your buttocks become steadily more numb as you sit on a hard floor.

The word on the street is that nearly 2,000 people will attend next week’s Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) in Austin. The majority are paid attendees and the rest are Microsoft employees and speakers. Microsoft briefed MVPs and session chairs about MEC details on Wednesday and revealed that 91% of the expected audience come from North America. This doesn’t reflect the worldwide audience for Exchange, Lync, and Office 365 at all and underlines the case for a MEC-like event outside the U.S. (like the old EMEA MEC events held in Nice, France).

Breakdown of MEC attendees (source: Microsoft)

Breakdown of MEC attendees (source: Microsoft)

With such a crowd, you can bet your bottom dollar that some sessions will be absolutely packed. Perhaps it’s the prospect of hearing a truly compelling speaker who is master of their subject or maybe it’s because the subject matter is new and interesting. For whatever reason, there will be attendee traffic jams going into some of the rooms.

The conference organizers will do their level best to assign appropriate rooms for sessions. They are helped in that MEC attendees have been registering for sessions over the last week or so. That data is used to predict where problems might lie, such as small rooms being assigned to overflowing sessions or, conversely, large rooms (like the ballrooms) assigned to sessions where everyone could shake hands with each other in less than two minutes.

It’s horrible to be a speaker looking out at the empty masses of seats in a large room. Communication is impossible, words echo around the room, and audiences tend to drift away. I think the worst example of this that I ever saw was at a DECUS conference in San Francisco in 1993 where the organizers assigned a room capable of holding 700 people to a session that attracted just two. I think the session was about connecting Apple Macs to Digital VAXes, a topic that you’d imagine would attract a crowd in San Francisco. Alas, it didn’t, and the speaker duly gave up and came down off the stage to chat with the two attendees.

I’ve already published some posts to help guide you through MEC:

Now to help you take a more scientific approach to planning your MEC agenda, I’ve extracted the data that is available online (to registered MEC attendees through the “Event Hubb”) and done some slicing and dicing to identify different types of sessions. Hopefully this helps you to make sense of the 7 core content tracks, 99 sessions, and 130 presenters. Not all of the tracks have a session for all slots. For example, after the opening keynote, there are only four sessions during Monday’s 10:30AM slot and five in the 1:15PM slot. On the other hand, Tuesday’s 1:30PM slot spreads itself across nine sessions.

Note that MEC is not publishing a paper guide to sessions this year. The new approach is that attendees will receive a OneNote notebook containing all of the session information. Time will tell whether this idea finds favor with everyone.

At the time I extracted the data (10AM East Coast on Friday), approximately 1,250 attendees had registered their options on the site. The data are therefore likely to change as the remaining attendees sign up for sessions. The knock-on effect is that the numbers shown below could expand by 25-30% (my guess).  So far, the average attendees registered for a session is 160.

People might change their mind as a result of this information or when they get to MEC and discover the sessions that their friends or colleagues plan on attending. However, I think the data are sufficiently accurate to aid in planning. Have fun with the information!

 I want to attend the most popular sessions

Apart from the opening keynote, which is always packed out, the following are the top 10 sessions based on the number planning to be at each. Here are the top 10 MEC sessions to date. [Data updated as at Saturday, 3AM Eastern]

Monday 10:30 Exchange Server 2013 Architecture: mailbox and client access Ross Smith IV 589
Monday 14:45 Exchange Server 2013 Tips & Tricks Scott Schnoll 479
Monday 16:30 Experts Unplugged: Exchange Top Issues – What are they and does anyone care or listen? Jennifer Gagnon, Amir Haque, Shawn McGrath, Tim Heeney, Scott Landry, Nino Bilic, Tony Redmond (chair – MVP) 475
Monday 13:15 Ready, set, deploy: Exchange Server 2013 Brian Day 470
Tuesday 10:45 The latest on High Availability & Site Resilience Greg Thiel, Abram Jackson, Dmitry Sarkisov 378
Wednesday 10:15 Exchange Design Concepts and Best Practices Boris Lokhvitsky 373
Tuesday 09:00 Exchange Server 2013 Transport Architecture Khushru Irani 361
Tuesday 13:30 Exchange storage for insiders Matt Gossage, Todd Luttinen, Nathan Muggli 323
Tuesday 16:45 Exchange Server 2013 Virtualization Best Practices Jeff Mealiffe 323
Tuesday 10:45 Exchange hybrid: architecture and deployment Andrew Ehrensing, Ronil Dhruva, Tim Heeney 311

Some people always prefer to seek out the comfort of an empty or relatively empty conference room where you have a choice of seat and can spread yourself out. If that’s your thing, then you should include these ten sessions in your list. However, be aware that the last two of these sessions were added just recently and have not yet been seen by many attendees.I want to avoid crowds

Wednesday 16:45 Extending Data Loss Prevention For Your Business Brian Reid (MVP) 60
Wednesday 13:00 Experts Unplugged: EOP & Encryption (repeat) Levon Esibov, Asaf Kashi, Tamar Tzruya, Wendy Wilkes, Ori Kashi 56
Wednesday 10:15 5 Real Life Scenarios of Office 365 in Education Jethro Seghers (MVP) 56
Wednesday 13:00 Grab a Wrench – DAGs under the hood Tim McMichael 54
Wednesday 10:15 Experts Unplugged: Data Loss Prevention (repeat) Jack Kabar, Asaf Kashi 51
Tuesday 10:45 Apps for Outlook Evolved Andrew Salamatov 49
Tuesday 13:30 Achieving better business productivity using Apps for Office and Office 365 Pretish Abraham 49
Tuesday 16:45 Experts Unplugged: Exchange Extensibility Glen Scales (MVP), Krushru Irani, Pretish Abraham, Andrew Salamatov, Carolyn Liu, Jason Henderson 24
Wednesday 14:45 Making changes to Exchange Online at high scale Rudra Mitra, Gayarthi Venkartarman 17
Wednesday 10:15 Optimizing Exchange Online for efficiencies and snappy experiences Rudra Mitra, Pravjit Tiwana, Bob Samer 5

I want to hear about integration

Exchange sits at the middle of an ecosystem. Third party software is not usually featured at a Microsoft conference and that’s the same for MEC. However, here are ten sessions that deal with the topic of integration, whether it’s with servers like SharePoint and Lync, or with clients. There are a relatively small number of sessions in this category:

Wednesday 14:45 Integrating Exchange 2013 with Lync and SharePoint Bhargav Shukla (MVP)
Wednesday 16:45 Load balancing Exchange and Lync Server 2013 Bhargav Shukla (MVP)
Monday 13:15 Collaboration with Site Mailboxes: Exchange and SharePoint together Alfons Staerk, Shashi Singaravel

I want to hear about new technology

At this point in its lifecycle, Exchange 2013 is not “new technology.” But a conference like MEC always has a number of sessions where new technology is discussed. Here’s a selection of what you can find at MEC

Tuesday 13:30 Managing and Securing Mobile Devices using Exchange, System Center 2012 R2, and Intune Lawrence Novak, Michael Indence
Monday 10:30 Introducing The Future of Enterprise Social, Office Graph, and Codename “Oslo” Christophe Fiessinger, Cem Aykan
Tuesday 15:00 Introducing Groups Sangya Singh, Andrew Friedman
Tuesday 13:30 Introducing the Personalized Inbox: “Clutter,” People View, and Search Refiners Jim Edelen, Kutlay Topatan, Krish Gali, Tore Sundelin

I want to hear about High Availability

High Availability has been a huge success for Exchange since the introduction of the Database Availability Group in Exchange 2010. A number of good sessions associated with topics around High Availability are being given at MEC. Here’s my pick:

Tuesday 10:45 The latest on High Availability & Site Resilience Greg Thiel, Abram Jackson, Dmitry Sarkisov
Tuesday 13:30 Exchange storage for insiders Matt Gossage, Todd Luttinen, Nathan Muggli
Tuesday 15:00 Experts Unplugged: Architecture – HA and Storage Matt Gossage, Todd Luttinen, Nathan Muggli, Greg Thiel, Abram Jackson, Dmitry Sarkisov, Mike Crowley (MVP – chair)
Wednesday 08:30 The art of datacenter switchover Tim McMichael

I want to hear about Office 365

Of course, Exchange Online and Exchange 2013 on-premises share the same code base, so it is difficult to draw a line as to where Office 365 and Exchange begin and end. In any case, here are some Office 365 sessions that might interest you.

Tuesday 10:45 Exchange hybrid: architecture and deployment Andrew Ehrensing, Ronil Dhruva, Tim Heeney
Tuesday 15:00 Behind the curtain: How we run Exchange Online Vivek Sharma
Monday 16:30 Modern Public Folders Migration & Office 365 Siegfried Jagott (MVP), Kanika Ramji
Tuesday 09:00 Exchange Online Migrations Technical Deep Dive Ayla Kol, Ram Poornalingam, William Rail
Monday 14:45 Microsoft Office 365 Directory and Access Management with Windows Azure Active Directory David Brandt, Juno Luk
Monday 13:15 Getting Started with Office 365 Deployment Jeff Medford
Monday 16:30 Protect your Organization with Exchange Online Protection (EOP) Levon Esibov
Tuesday 13:30 Experts Unplugged: Exchange Online Migrations Ayla Kol, Juno Luk, Martina Grom (MVP – chair), Ram Poornalinham, Ronil Dhruva, Steve Daigle
Wednesday 14:45 Troubleshooting hybrid mailflow Vincent Yim
Tuesday 09:00 Engineers vs Mechanics – the evolving role of IT with Office 365 Jon Orton, Alistair Speirs, Jeremy Chapman
Monday 16:30 Exchange Online service security investments: you CAN and SHOULD do this at home Siddhartha Mathur, Raji Dani
Wednesday 13:00 Reporting On O365 Mailflow and Mailbox Data John Gargiulo, Mitchell Hall
Tuesday 15:00 Field Notes – Supporting Office 365 Customers Kamal Abburi
Tuesday 09:00 How to (remote) control Office 365 with Azure Martina Grom (MVP), Toni Pohl (MVP)
Wednesday 10:15 5 Real Life Scenarios of Office 365 in Education Jethro Seghers (MVP)
Wednesday 14:45 Making changes to Exchange Online at high scale Rudra Mitra, Gayarthi Venkartarman

I want to hear about Exchange clients

An email server is not much good without some clients. Here are the sessions dedicated to the many varied clients available to Exchange.

Tuesday 09:00 Experts Unplugged: Architecture – Client Access and Connectivity Greg Taylor, Jeff Mealiffe, Ross Smith IV, Venkat Ayyadevara, Jeff Guillet (MVP – Chair)
Wednesday 10:15 Outlook Connectivity: Current and Future Guy Groeneveld, Rafiq El Alami, Venkat Ayyadevara
Wednesday 14:45 Experts Unplugged: Outlook 2013 Peter Allenspach, Rafiq El Alami, Venkat Ayyedevara, Erik Ashby, Ronak Trivedi, Jason Henderson
Wednesday 14:45 Exchange Client Network Bandwidth Calculator v2 Neil Johnson
Wednesday 13:00 What’s New in Authentication for Outlook 2013 Venkat Ayyedevara, Erik Ashby, Franklin Williams
Wednesday 08:30 What’s New in Outlook 2013 Peter Allenspach, Ronak Trivedi
Tuesday 10:45 What’s New in OWA for Devices Greg Baribault
Tuesday 09:00 What’s New in Outlook Web App Paul Tischhauser, Eduardo Melo, Krish Gali, Mike Brickman
Wednesday 10:15 Experts Unplugged: OWA and Mobility Amit Gupta, Greg Baribault, Julio Estrada, Paul Limont
Tuesday 16:45 Introducing Document Collaboration in Outlook Web App Kip Fern, Joseph Masterson

That’s about the end of my ruminations on MEC sessions. I hope that everyone that attends MEC has a great time. I know I shall!

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Posted in Exchange, Exchange 2010, Exchange 2013, Office 365 | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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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Posted in Exchange 2013 | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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 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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Posted in Exchange 2013 | Tagged , | 6 Comments

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. article captured in OneNote via an IFTTT recipe 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 to provide a good example of how you might use this capability. There are many other recipes available for the “OneNote channel on” 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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