Poor old Microsoft Exchange, it is(was) in the wars!

(Update April 2017 – This article picked up on my concerns about the direction Microsoft was taking that seemed to sideline the technical specialists who are the foundation of their success, alongside the continuing premise that each alternate release of Exchange Server has been a testing bed for the next, stable and fully functional version. 5.5 Great, 2000 Awful, 2003 Great, 2007 Awful… Thankfully 2016 hasn’t let us down, so the concerns and general whinges in this article have little relevance today. In fact, with the recent fundamental changes to Outlook also, I’m back to considering novel uses for the manifold options available rather than working around the limitations of a system. Happy days for techies!)

I can be accused of being cynical, negative, facetious and admit to a certain world-weariness weighing down on my eternal optimism but come on, don’t give me so much ammunition! I googleded (like stumbled, just on the internet) into the update page for Exchange 2013 CU1 release recently and just out of interest started reading. I do like something that can cheer me up on a slow day!

It just brings to mind the McDonalds and Dolmio style of advertising where they say how good they are now. Don’t marketing departments realise they are therefore admitting their products were awful before and they treated you as mugs for buying them? “Mamma used to make her sauce with lots of cheap artificial ingredients but now she’s all natural.” “We make our chicken products with chicken now!” Hmm.

Here’s just a few clips from the recent post by the Exchange Team, regarding CU1 for Exchange 2013. Besides the laughable lack of coexistence that still isn’t really all there and what appears to have been a direct effort to obstruct people from continuing to use 2010 of course. My comments obviously follow them!

“As you can imagine, with hosting millions of mailboxes in Office 365, accurate storage reporting is essential, just like in your on-premises deployments. One of the learnings that we accrued into the on-premises product is ensuring that the mailbox usage statistics are more closely aligned with the capacity usage within the Mailbox database. The impact of reporting space more accurately means that mailbox quota limits may need to be adjusted prior to the mailbox move so that users are not locked out of their mailbox during the migration process.”

Gosh, wasn’t it bad that you couldn’t tell exactly how much space your system was using? You should have spoken to your vendor about that.. Isn’t it good though, now it matters to us, we’ve looked at the way this didn’t work and now made it work. Aren’t you glad we care and aren’t you glad you used all those detailed calculators to design a system that couldn’t report on what you were actually storing? (Really not sure about ‘learnings’ either. Microsoftese is becoming more bizarre or perhaps affected by Meer Kats I am thinkings.)

“In Exchange 2010 you could not use a group as an owner for another group for membership management. Instead you had to deploy explicit permissions on groups or use a script as a workaround.

Since Exchange 2010’s release both Microsoft Support and the Exchange Product Group received resounding feedback on the need for this capability. The good news is that with Exchange 2013 RTM CU1 groups can once again be owners of groups for membership management.”

It only took us three and a half years to listen to you and incorporate one little change in this fast moving world of technology! We know that you will have all waited this long for us to sort it and so will not have changed your business processes to accomodate this shortcoming, making this return to functionality mostly pointless;

“As explained in Exchange 2013 Client Access Server Role, CAS 2013 is simply an authentication and proxy/redirection server; all data processing (including the execution of remote PowerShell cmdlets) occurs on the Mailbox server.”

Well the previous one is just included as it really got on my goat at the time, not so much as a stupid advert, just as another ‘up yours’ to on-premises customers. It isn’t just that this change was not made to benefit on-premises customers but also the pathetic attempts to justify all the pointless investment in design and hardware load balancers that Microsoft touted when they released 2010. Now it is all; “Oh no, it is fine, you will still benefit from having bought multiple redundant hardware load balancers for your CAS arrays. All the SMEs did it” No they did not and aren’t you all glad who stuck with Windows NLB where appropriate? I bet none of you designed your CAS and Mailbox servers to fit the processor and memory configurations anticipating that it would all change in 2013 again? It is fine though, I’m sure the mailbox server specifications will work out just fine now.

Oh for goodness sakes, I was going to draw to a close and then I read on.. The old chestnut, Public Folders! “Look at this great work flow, group functionality we’ve created” “Ugh, who designed this security model?” “No we don’t like them or support them” “Well ok, if you really insist, we’ll kind of make them work” “Yes they’re there but we’re phasing them out” “Look at what we’ve made, it’s a new thing called Modern Public Folders and look at the functionality they bring you!!” (A brief history of PFs since Exchange 5.5) Well, it seems that nobody told the GUI designers that they’d come back into favour and are supposed to be included now (well, only the Modern ones – is Modern the new New?).

“In Exchange Server 2013 RTM there was no way to access Public Folder content through Outlook Web App. In CU1 you will now have access to Public Folders you have added as favorites via your favorites menu either in Outlook or Outlook Web App. However, this access is limited to Public Folders stored on Exchange Server 2013.

Remember, you cannot start creating Public Folders on Exchange Server 2013 until all users have been migrated to Exchange Server 2013. For how to migrate from legacy Public Folders to Exchange Server 2013 Public Folders, see Migrate Public Folders to Exchange 2013 From Previous Versions.”

Sooo, hang on, once again, this is called coexistence yes? I mean at the beginning of the server deployment we are told that we are beginning our “coexistence journey”. Well, there wasn’t any prior to this release so really as already well known, SP1 or now CU1 is what customers would call ‘Real RTM’ and now Exchange 2013 CU1 has a migration path. Although, hang on, you can’t see previous version PFs, you can’t create new PFs until everyone has migrated, you can’t even see a legacy PF as 2013 has no code to deal with PF databases? Minor discrepancy there? If user is on 2010 and accessing folders on 2010 and then move to 2013, they then have to wait until post migration to access data in PFs or create and use 2013 MPFs? Guess all Exchange 2013 migrations in organisations using PFs will be expected to migrate over a weekend.. Nice!

Why not be honest. Look at the design. You’ve botched together a mailbox based storage system that you’ve called ‘Modern Public Folders’. The official documentation even tells you again what you’re not to use the ‘folders’ for i.e. what people use them for. Oh dear. So no visibility of public folder databases thus no interoperability/coexistence so migrate your public folder data to mailboxes effectively and do what we wanted all those years ago – Scrap public folder databases. (Ok, I agree not altogether a bad thing!!)

Now, considering the hundreds of terabytes of public folder information in the world today, how well has Microsoft real world tested these ‘Modern Public Mailboxes’ oops, I mean, Folders? (I write and jest from ignorance but having read up on this design a little now, I am intrigued as much as concerned and will have to have a play and update if I find I’m wrong and they are an amazing leap forwards) I never did like the public folder architecture even though I had no trouble mucking about with PfDavAdmin since I got hold of early releases. I did however accept that many businesses had got caught up in their use and had been very inventive in many cases in their development. This made Microsoft’s attempts to scrap them quite insulting, especially with no clear migration path to Sharepoint for example. I’ve lost of the count of times I’ve been asked by customers incredulously “Well surely Microsoft have a plan for dealing with Public Folders?”.

Oh dear, I really dislike sounding like I’m running down the Exchange Team and all the incredible work they do. I honestly feel that behind the scenes they are working to very unreasonable requirements and doing better than anyone should expect. The support and thanks I still afford them for what good work and amazing developments in the database architecture, HA and general joy of running Exchange will never diminish. Then again, I’ve paid my dues in more ways than one supporting every version of email Microsoft have made and a few others, so feel I have some right to get peeved when such transparent strategies are sugar coated.

I suppose that really brings me back to the crux yet again. It isn’t even that I really dislike Exchange 2013, more the taint of Office 365 that pervades it. More and more I think the codebase should have continued to diverge at the point of late 2010 development resulting in a slicker on-premises product than 2013 will be.

The reality of what lies beneath and the history of why things are how they are and how you can’t change customers’ business practices easily still seem to get forgotten every few years. (must be all those bright eyed graduates with fresh ideas about how good things could be)

Hmm, probably some good contracts out there now with people working out how to migrate to 2013.. (Ah yes, the phone hasn’t stopped since first drafting this article)

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2 Responses to Poor old Microsoft Exchange, it is(was) in the wars!

  1. Scott Schering says:

    Oh you missed the best part of Public Folder Migration. They broke it! If you start a public folder migration post CU2 it will NEVER complete.. It only took me 3 weeks to get premier support to admit to this little bug. Don’t worry, They promise it will be fixed in CU3. I just have to wait till the end of November to get it. Oh and that title bug that stops you from forwarding meeting requests from external users? it’ll be fixed in CU4.. What about inline attachments mysteriously vanishing from messages when moved to PST? Just wait for SP1 in 2014.. Now just close your eyes and chant “I love my 2013 experience” while you bang your head on the desk.

    • Hi Scott,

      Oh crikey, I really feel for you and any others who are being left this poorly planned and hastily deployed ‘solution’ to the age-old Public Folder debacle. Anyone detect the “Lalalalalalala can’t hear you” in the background when logging a PF/MPF case? It’ll be so slick by the next major release come 2015. You don’t want to hear that again though I reckon.

      This touches on so many topical themes in IT that it deserves its own article really.

      Before I roll into a ramble though, I’ll mention I’ve been working with some developers to look at solving many PF migration woes with a tool that was developed to fix a specific need and as ever may have some exceptionally useful alternative applications. It is in final development to a beta stage and although mainly focusses on Sharepoint migration, I’m looking to see what mechanisms could be altered to provide a migration path to MPFs. Whilst this may well not fall into your migration timescales, if you’re interested I can add you to a mail list for updates?

      Public Folders fall into the category of MS software that was a useful tool deserving of development but instead fell by the wayside. It was, like email itself orginally, not seen as well used by decision makers or at Microsoft. So, I think that, as with proprietry migration tools, Microsoft decided to abandon Public Folders and hope that people would stop using them or find a third party alternative, even their hated Lotus Notes. That didn’t happen and customer demand led to Public Folders being dragged all the way to 2010 with almost no development by Microsoft even though current use and dependence on Public Folders was still clearly visible. Again as with migration tools, no real revenue boost from Public Folders existed yet lots of annoying customer calls to support them kept coming in as a result of them.

      Once Sharepoint was touted as a viable product that could allow Public Folders to be abandoned it seems again Microsoft left customers to work out how to get all that data in there or wait for the surprise of ‘Modern Public Folders’. (You’d think with all the bad ju-ju associated with the term Public Folders they’d have tried a rebrand? PDI – Public Data Interchangers? Or more honestly, Workflow Automation Notation Keepers? For all you Glaswegians out there 😉 )

      The speed of major product version advancement should be at the least 5-6 years which fits with my long touted “Avoid ‘development’ releases of Exchange” mantra (i.e. every alternating version since good old 5.5 – 2000, 2007, 2013…) This would maybe mean that organisations could save the continual upgrade costs and perhaps MS resource could be given to mundane tasks such as making the errors that MS software produces have links that actually gave one information? (I know, shame, you don’t get MVP wannabe points on the blog sites but Microsoft would get less support calls) Paid for updates for customers who wanted to advance with extended TAP programmes would provide a different and probably more lucrative revenue stream for Microsoft. Finally, support resources wouldn’t constantly be doing anything to avoid working on that old, archaic one month old piece of software and more truly skilled resources would result. Businesses would benefit, technical staff would benefit and Microsoft would benefit. Seems obvious really.

      I’m currently helping an organisation whose crime, waiting three versions to upgrade from their perfectly functional email system, has left them with few options in obtaining skilled resources for such a task. Their trusted ‘Solution Provider’ has done the classic “Yes we know how to do that” -> “Quick, Google how to do that” and left them in a worse state than if they had worked it out themselves. By chance, I ended up in there untangling what should have been an easy migration and smoothing out what remains but so easily it could have been left dragging on for no good reason other than a lack of properly skilled people in the market. This can be true for any size of ‘Solution Provider’ and the more concerning for that fact.

      Once again, back in the real world, organisations use what works for whatever business reason or restriction, software vendors should not be allowed to cause such massive disruption by imposing purely conceptual needs to advance at an unreasonable pace.

      Public Folders therefore, swinging back wildly from the tangent, are just another casualty in the inexorable advance to the future which will continue until businesses realise that Business IT is not a science or consumer fad and therefore requires a coherent, considered and controlled approach rather than a wild dash towards advancement purely for the sake of advancement or the latest shiny thing.

      All the best in your efforts to migrate however you get there!

      Napoleon

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