What Exchange 2007 SP2 brings to the table

With a few new features and a backup utility for 2008, the forthcoming service pack may -- or may not -- be the answer to a ton of complaints

Service packs aren't always exciting. Typically, they take hotfixes and minor improvements that have been rolled out already and bundle them into one pack. But at times they include exciting new features.

For example, SP1 for Exchange 2007 included a fourth high-availability capability for site replication called Standby Continuous Replication (SCR). It also came with a bevy of new ActiveSync policies and a new GUI console for managing public folders (management was allowed only through the EMS and PowerShell cmdlets with the original release).

[ Read J. Peter Bruzzese's take on Exchange 2010's enhancements. | See the InfoWorld Test Center's first look at Exchange 2010. ]

This fall, Microsoft will release Exchange 2007 SP2, which adds some interesting new features. But the primary focus is on the new backup tool, whch replaces the one that Microsoft removed from Windows Server. Here is what you have to look forward to:

  • Enhanced Auditing: Certainly a beneficial feature for Exchange administrators looking to audit their Exchange servers.
  • Dynamic Active Directory Schema Update and Validation: For those of you who have to deal with Active Directory schema updates, this is going to be a nice feature that prevents conflicts and helps to dynamically deploy future schema updates.
  • Public Folder Quota Management: SP2 improves the PowerShell cmdlets needed to perform quota management.
  • Centralized Organizational Settings: This is another PowerShell option to enable centralized management of Exchange organizational settings.
  • Named Properties cmdlet: A new way to monitor named properties per database.
  • New user Interface for Managing Diagnostic Logging: Found with the Exchange Management Console, this will allow for an easier logging experience for Exchange administrators to configure.
  • Exchange Volume Snapshot Backup Functionality: There are some serious stipulations to the use of this add-in, which I will explain in a moment, but it is probably the most anticipated aspect of the service pack, even by administrators who will never use it.

Note that you need to deploy SP2 in your existing environment to be able to interoperate with Exchange Server 2010 and its transition services.

When Microsoft removed its backup capability from Windows Server, I was not happy. But I am happy that a new tool will soon be available, this time in Exc hange 2007 SP2. However, Microsoft does note stipulations for its use:

  • It is only VSS-based, so you can't do streaming ESE backups (which is fine). The VSS backup must be run locally, although you can back up to a remote network share if you prefer.
  • Backups are at the volume level. This means you have to back up the entire volume, rather than being able to back up just a storage group or database or mailbox. It would be nice to have a more granular backup than what the Exchange 2007 SP2 backup tool provides.
  • You can perform only full backups, and you can back up only the active copy of a database. It does not support passive backup, which is a bit odd considering that VSS is perfect for an LCR or CCR passive side backup.
  • You can restore only the Exchange data, but you must restore all backed-up storage groups and databases in a single movement. You cannot restore to a Recovery Storage Group, but you can restore to an alternate location and manually move the data to an RSG.

Some administrators are pleased by the new backup add-on, while others are unsatisfied, as evidenced in comments found on the Microsoft Exchange team site:

  • "Are you kidding? You announced this add-on last year at TechEd, and after a year the result is this one? Please, make a real add-on available very soon, thank you."
  • "Wooohooo, way to finally put an integral feature back into my mail server! It's unfortunate that it doesn't have any flexibility. Maybe for Windows Server 2010 or Exchange Server 2010 you can reintroduce NTBackup?"
  • "It's cool that you finally provide this option to back up Exchange from Windows Server 2008. But I still think that you are forcing people to use a third-party backup utility. The old NTBackup is still much more flexible than this new Windows backup. Why on earth would Microsoft create a new tool with less functionality?"

Personally, I would like to see a more powerful, more flexible tool offered by Microsoft, if for no other reason than to dispel the conspiracy theories that Microsoft pulled the utility from Windows Server 2008 in an attempt to force more people to buy the System Center: Data Protection Manager tool. Do I believe in those conspiracy theories? Well, I was leaning in that direction, until a good friend on the Exchange team made it clear that this was not the case. Nevertheless, even if I don't personally believe it was an evil plot, I can see how others might not be so convinced. Once again, a better tool would be the way to dispel the conspiracy theories. And there is still time to improve the tool before the fall release date hits (which is my little plea to the Exchange team).

On a different note, who in the world really uses the onboard backup tool for Exchange? Typically, the use of third-party tools is the norm. And if you are using NTBackup and don't know what you can get from a third-party tool, I suspect you'll have no complaints about this VSS volume backup tool. All you will care about is your ability to back up.

That's my two cents. What do you think? Will this tool be worth your time as an administrator? Or are you insulted that this is the answer to many moons of complaints?