Tackling Exchange management from all angles

Tools from DYS Analytics, Microsoft, Quest, Zenprise emphasize different admin strengths

See correction at end of review

When you consider the number of different applications, Windows services, and settings that need to be configured properly in order to create a working Exchange server, it isn’t surprising that many administrators spend a lot of time maintaining their systems. The basic MMC (Microsoft Management Console) and Exchange Manager software provided with Exchange offers a tool for configuration, but no reporting, alerts, diagnostics, or troubleshooting to speak of.

I took a look at four products that aim to ease that burden: DYS Analytics Email Control for Exchange, Microsoft Exchange 2003 Management Pack for MOM (Microsoft Operations Manager) 2005, Quest Spotlight on Exchange, and Zenprise.

My test setup consisted of two AD (Active Domain) controllers, two Exchange servers, and a Mirapoint RazorGate 100 anti-spam appliance. Getting permissions straight can be complex: All of the products require user accounts with administrative privileges on the Exchange servers to be monitored, as well as test mailboxes to which they can send mail. Correctly configuring those accounts can be trying, but this isn’t a defect in the Exchange management tools themselves; it’s a reflection on the convoluted permission structures in Windows Active Directory.

I tested several error conditions -- such as interrupting connectivity between two servers, creating zero free space on a server drive, and stopping an Exchange service -- and observed how the products handled these scenarios. I also examined their reporting capabilities.

The four products all take a similar approach. Each collects data from the Exchange servers in your organization, relying on accounts with administrative access rather than agents that run on the server. Each stores data in a Microsoft SQL Server database, either the full version or the MSDE (Microsoft SQL Server Database Engine) runtime version.

However, each product has a different emphasis, and therefore, they have very different feature sets. Two are focused on monitoring and management: DYS Analytics has very useful reporting tools at a reasonable price, whereas Quest allows you to configure and manage multiple Exchange servers. Exchange Management Pack for MOM 2005 combines monitoring and management with a useful knowledge base for problem resolution, whereas Zenprise focuses exclusively on troubleshooting. (Because Zenprise is essentially a diagnostic tool for Exchange, it was evaluated using different scoring criteria than the other products here.)

Exchange administrators will be looking for different things in a management tool, so these four products -- whether by themselves or in combination -- will meet a variety of needs. Some admins want reporting and alerts, whereas others crave the troubleshooting capabilities of Zenprise and the Exchange Management Pack for MOM 2005. Others will want the ability to trace mail flows from one user and server to the end destination that DYS Analytics, Quest, or MOM bring.

None of these products covers all the bases (see “Balancing Management Needs,” page 44). None will actually make recommended changes for you -- you’ll still have to use MMC to do that (even Quest’s tools are based on MMC). But after the software has been installed, these products will bring you more information on your Exchange servers than you’re used to receiving.

DYS Analytics Email Control 5.0.2 for Exchange

The EC (Email Control) monitoring software runs on a Windows 2000 or Windows Server 2003, or a Windows 2000 Pro or XP system. It isn’t run on the DC (domain controller) or the Exchange server; it needs to be run from a separate workstation. Other than an access account in AD and Internet Explorer 6.0 or later, there are no requirements for databases or server agents.

Installation is straightforward -- log in to the workstation as a user with administrative rights on the Exchange Server, run the Install.exe program, specify the DC and Exchange server and the path to the log files on the Exchange server (the log file directory must be shared as a network drive). The installer will install the software, the MSDE runtime version of SQL Server, and the Apache Tomcat server that hosts the service. You’ll access reports through the Apache Tomcat server using a browser.

EC can examine any Exchange server for which you have admin rights, as one license covers an unlimited number of servers and as many as 5,000 users. It has dozens of predefined reports to track statistics such as messages received and sent, server uptime and downtime, message routing status, and connectivity to external servers for mail delivery and server utilization.

EC has two parts, Track Now and Investigate Now. Track Now is further divided into three parts: User Track, Server Track, and Internet Track. User Track allows you to track messages from one user to another, determining how those messages are routed, how long they take to arrive, and what problems arise along the way. Server Track does the same thing from one Exchange server to another, and Internet Track does the same from an Exchange server to an SMTP server.

Investigate Now is the analysis piece of the puzzle, reporting on disk and network utilization, message volume, message sizes, number of failures, mailbox utilization, and more. Reports can be created in real time or be scheduled to run at set times, and they can be exported as HTML to share with other users. Standard reports can be modified for content and formatting.

EC offers a clear, basic set of tools to get detailed information on Exchange server performance. It doesn’t send alarms when thresholds are exceeded, and it doesn’t have the expert system diagnostics that the Management Pack for MOM and Zenprise do, but the reporting tools are clear, concise, and easy to read. Whether you’re willing to peruse reports regularly will be a question of budget and the number of problems that crop up regularly on your network.

With a price of $3,495 for up to 5,000 users, Email Control is probably not for small shops, but shops with 1,000 to 5,000 users will find it inexpensive in terms of per-user costs.

Quest Spotlight on Exchange 5.2.0

Quest has a number of products available for Exchange, sold separately or in one of three suites. I tested the Quest SoE (Spotlight on Exchange) 5.2.0, an overall Exchange management tool, and Management Console for Exchange 1.0.2, which is an extension of Microsoft’s MMC that acts as the central component.

Quest also offers several other products for managing various aspects of Exchange, including storage utilization, recovery or archiving, distribution list management, directory services management, migration tasks, and even Exchange fail-over. All of these plug in to the Management Console.

The Quest solution is geared for managing a large network of Exchange servers. SoE provides topological mapping of the Exchange environment, along with alerts, reporting, and diagnostic tools. Management Console for Exchange is a free MMC snap-in that can be used as a unified management tool for all the various Quest products. At only $3 per managed mailbox, it’s a lot of functionality for the money.

Installing SoE is necessarily a somewhat complex process because it uses either the MSDE runtime SQL Server or the full Microsoft SQL Server, as well as the IIS Web server. It also requires Microsoft Database Access Components 2.7 or later, .Net Framework 1.1, Exchange System Management Tools, and IE 5.5 or 6.0, which (thankfully) are all free. It runs on Windows 2000 Server or 2003 Server, or Windows 2000 Pro or XP Pro.

The full installer for SoE is a 120MB download and includes the prerequisite SQL Server, MDAC, and .Net Framework. If you already have the required components, you can download the smaller 36MB version. (If the programs haven’t been installed, you’ll face a separate install and restart process, so checking first is worth your while.) You’ll also need to set up accounts to access the Exchange servers you’ll be managing, as well as accounts for the SQL and IIS servers.

When that’s all done, the system’s autodiscovery feature makes it easy to add the Exchange servers, Active Directory servers, and other components of your e-mail system into the SoE structure.

You access SoE through the MMC snap-in or via a browser using the URL for the IIS server. From the management UI you can collect data, run diagnostic tests, and set alarms to alert you if thresholds are exceeded. The data collection and reporting tools are extensive and will tell you all that you might ever want to know about what’s happening on your servers.

I found SoE’s diagnostic tools useful. They cover five basic areas -- store responsiveness, mailbox log-in, message delivery, OWA (Outlook Web Access) availability, and external message transfer. They provide more data than the tools built into Exchange but will not give you the breadth of tests or expert advice that Zenprise or even the Management Pack for MOM will.

Overall, SoE is a very capable reporting and alerting tool, with some diagnostic capability. It offers a lot for a relatively low price per user, and it tackles several Exchange management tasks that administrators commonly have trouble with. If you combine it with Quest’s other Exchange tools, SoE will provide a huge amount of functionality.

Microsoft Exchange 2003 Management Pack for MOM 2005

The Exchange 2003 Management Pack for MOM 2005 is an add-on to the MOM server. It collects additional data beyond what the MOM server captures, such as e-mail transfer rates, message throughput, message delivery speeds, and server utilization based on Exchange services. The Management Pack also identifies potential problems and suggests resolutions, so it’s something of a combination of Quest and Zenprise, having management, reporting, and troubleshooting capabilities.

Using the Management Pack requires the MOM 2005 server with SP1, as well as SQL Server 2000 with SP4, and the latest MSI patch (3.1). When installing SQL Server, it’s important to include the Rosetta SQL reporting service option, or the Management Pack won’t work.

After the prerequisites have been installed and the necessary accounts and permissions have been set, a configuration wizard sets up rules to track performance by sending real e-mails, checks the availability of necessary services, ensures enough disk space is available, and so forth. The wizard also makes it simple to create test accounts and begin logging data.

The Management Pack monitors all aspects of the Exchange server, making sure that the message store, system attendant, SMTP, OWA, IMAP, POP, and AD services are working properly and that performance isn’t degraded. By default, it creates reports once a day, with a script that pulls reports at 2 a.m., but you can easily customize the times to match your own requirements.

The system has a good set of predefined rules for reactions to specific events or threshold breaches, and many administrators will feel no need to modify them. The rules have various levels of severity and determine the alert method required for each case: The Management Pack will log errors, send e-mails, or even page the administrator as necessary.

When errors are identified, a knowledge base article is associated with the error to aid resolution. Although these are often useful, I found them less sophisticated and less detailed than the information provided by Zenprise.

Another item worth noting: Whereas the Management Pack itself is free, MOM 2005 is not, with a license fee per server monitored -- minimum of 10 servers, for a base price of $6,099. And because Microsoft SQL Server 2000 -- rather than the free runtime SQL Server -- is also required, the overall cost could be substantial.

If you’re not running MOM, consider the price of a MOM server and licenses for each Exchange server in your decision. However, if you’re already running MOM 2005, the Exchange 2003 Management Pack is a no-brainer -- you should at least try it out. It’s more complex to install than Zenprise, and not as easy to use, but it is a more well-rounded package and won’t cost you anything extra.

Zenprise 1.0.3

Zenprise is very different from the other tools in this roundup: It doesn’t manage servers or send alerts. Instead, it focuses on troubleshooting Exchange errors, which it does extremely well.

Although many administrators tend to regard expert systems with skepticism, Zenprise provides useful diagnostic advice and clear, accurate instructions on how to correct a problem. It also tracks performance data over time, creating trend information that helps administrators identify and resolve issues before they cause user outages.

The software consists of a management server and a user console; you’ll also need to install SQL Server or the MSDE runtime version. If you want the reporting capability, you’ll need to install the full SQL Server and Microsoft reporting tools for SQL Server.

Zenprise runs on a stand-alone, Web services-enabled server. It discovers the Exchange environment by connecting to AD, using agentless or agent modes. The agentless mode uses WMI (Windows Management Interface), whereas the agent can be pushed to Exchange servers automatically. Administrators who don’t trust additional agents running on critical servers will be happy to have the agentless mode, while others will prefer the quicker responsiveness and faster reporting times of the agents, as well as the ability to run local configuration utilities such as DSConfig.

Zenprise uses three algorithms to find Exchange problems: correlation, causation, and correction. The system tracks historical performance data to create dynamic baselines that consider the local environment, number of users, time of day, month, and so forth. Signatures for causation are updated regularly -- just like anti-virus software -- to identify new problems as they occur, such as issues associated with new service packs.

Corrective actions are also updated regularly, and unlike many online help systems, Zenprise provides clear, useful instructions on how to resolve problems. Its real-time, automated diagnosis and resolution extends to other network problems, such as Internet connectivity, firewall blips, and DNS hiccups as well -- all issues that can impact Exchange performance. And as opposed to many historical tracking systems, there’s no need for the administrator to guess at thresholds for alerts because the software creates its own thresholds based on all data collected to date.

In my tests, Zenprise correctly identified all the problems I created on my test network, and it suggested the correct procedures to fix the problems. It also identified trends that would become troublesome over time, such as users whose mailboxes were increasing rapidly in size, or DNS settings that might cause unwanted increases in network traffic.

If Zenprise can’t identify a problem, it gives you a list of potential issues that it has been able to eliminate, so that escalation to tech support can start at a higher level. Another handy detail is that notifications can be based on a users’ role -- domain controller issues go to the AD team, DNS issues to the DNS team, and so forth.

At $15 per user, per year, Zenprise is fairly expensive compared with the other software reviewed here. But if you’re looking for an intense diagnostic tool and don’t need reporting or other management features, it’s a good choice. Zenprise also offers an SMB edition, which supports as many as 1,000 users and starts at $2,500 per year for 50 employees or less. The SMB edition includes a database (MSDE) but lacks the enterprise reporting module and support for clustering.

With its proactive troubleshooting capability, historical trending, and expert diagnostics system, Zenprise could well keep troublesome Exchange networks from ever becoming a real problem -- or at least dramatically speed resolution of problems when they to occur.

Decisions, decisions

None of these products is a complete solution -- there is no single all-around Exchange management product that will solve all of an administrator’s problems. Management Pack for MOM comes closest, although its required MOM server and SQL Server may give administrators pause.

A combination of DYS Analytics or Quest, plus Zenprise for troubleshooting, would give you a complete solution; for those who need help with additional Exchange management tasks, Quest’s set of specialized tools gives it a lot of flexibility. Organizations with large or complex Exchange installations might well find that all four products have a place in their network.

Many administrators, however, will feel that they don’t need a complete Exchange management tool set in their environment, but instead need one or two products to fill the gaps in their staff’s expertise. Because all of these products can be downloaded free (at least for a 30-day trial), you can try them yourself and draw your own conclusions.

For example, if you’re not as confident in your troubleshooting skills, Zenprise and the Microsoft Exchange 2003 Management Pack both include troubleshooting features that aren’t present in DYS Analytics’ Email Control and Quest’s products. The Microsoft Management Pack’s reporting tools and alerts give it an edge, but I found Zenprise to be better at uncovering problems and suggesting the correct solution. If you’re sure of your ability to resolve Exchange problems after they’ve been identified, the reporting tools from Quest and DYS Analytics may be all you need.

Correction:
In this review, we should have stated that the
 Microsoft Exchange 2003 Management Pack for MOM 2005 is fully supported by Microsoft. InfoWorld regrets the error, and it has been corrected.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Manageability (15.0%)
Monitoring (25.0%)
Setup (10.0%)
Ease of use (10.0%)
Reporting (30.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
DYS Analytics Email Control 5.0.2 7.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 7.6
Quest Spotlight on Exchange 5.2.0 8.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 7.0 7.8
Microsoft Exchange 2003 Management Pack for MOM 2005 8.0 8.0 7.0 7.0 7.0 7.0 7.4
Zenprise 1.0.3 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.4
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