OCS 2007 RTMs

The title says it all really – Office Communications Server 2007 released to manufacturing on Friday. Mark posted about it then, so I guess it’s official (though there’s not much hoo-haa yet on Microsoft.com).

It’s getting pretty exciting with the use of desktop video (even though it’s nothing new: we’ve had it since Netmeeting in Windows 95 in one shape or another) starting to take off. Gartner Group’s “Hype Cycle” for Comms & Collaboration from last year put Desktop Video firmly on the way into the “Trough of Disillusionment”. I wonder if pervasive camera deployments and using software enabled VoIP through OCS, will lift Desktop Video back onto the Slope of Enlightenment?

Living the dream with Office Communicator 2007

I’ve been a long-time fan of instant messaging and pervasive “presence”, especially the cultural changes it allows organisations to make in order to communicate and collaborate better. As a result, I’ve been really interested to see what’s been happening with Office Communications Server (the soon-to-be-released successor to Live Communications Server).

Around 6 weeks ago, I joined an internal MS deployment of full-voice OCS, meaning that my phone number was moved onto the OCS platform so now I’m not using the PBX at all. It’s been a remarkably cool experience in a whole lot of ways, but it really hits home just how different the true UC world might be, when you start to use it in anger.

I’ve been working from home today, and the fact that my laptop is on the internet (regardless of whether I’m VPNed into the company network), the OCS server will route calls to my PC and simultaneously to the mobile, so I can pick them up wherever. As more and more people are using OCS internally, it’s increasingly the norm to just hit the “Call” button from within Office Communicator (the OCS client) or from Outlook, and not really care which number is going to be called.

brettjo on a Catalina

Here, I was having a chat with Brett and since we both have video cameras, I just made a video call – I was at home so just talked to the laptop in a speakerphone type mode, Brett was in the office so used his wired phone, which was plugged into the PC:

(this device is known internally as a “Catalina” and functions mainly as a USB speaker/microphone, but also has some additional capabilities like a message waiting light, a few hard-buttons, and a status light that shows the presence as currently set on OCS).

It’s a bit weird when you start using the phone and realise that you’re not actually going near a traditional PBX environment for a lot of the interaction. Calling up voice mail, as delivered by Exchange Unified Messaging, is as easy as pressing the “call voice mail” button in Communicator – no need to provide a PIN or an extension number, since the system already knows who I am and I’ve already authenticated by logging in to the PC.

When I use this, the “call” goes from my PC to OCS, then from the OCS server directly to the Exchange server, all as an IP data stream and without touching the traditional TDM PBX that we still have here. A third party voice gateway allows for me to use OCS to call other internal people who are still homed on the PBX system, and to make outbound calls.

Microsoft’s voice strategy of “VoIP As You Are” starts to make a lot of sense in this environment – I could deploy technology like OCS and Exchange UM and start getting immediate benefit, without needing to rip & replace the traditional phone system, at least not until it’s ready for obsolescence.

Here’s an idea of what kind of system is in place – for more information, check out Paul Duffy’s interview with ZDNet’s David Berlind.

The business case for Exchange 2007 – part II

(This is a follow on to the previous post on measuring business impact, and the first post on the business case for Exchange 2007, and are my own thoughts on the case for moving to Exchange 2007). It’s part of a series of posts which I’m trying to keep succinct, though they tend to be a bit longer than usual. If you find them useful, please let me know…)

GOAL: Reduce the backup burden

Now I’m going to start by putting on the misty rose-tinted specs and think back to the good old days of Exchange 4.0/5.x. When server memory was measured in megabytes and hard disk capacity in the low Gbs, there were much lower bottlenecks to performance than exist today.

Lots of people deployed Exchange servers with their own idea of how many users they would “fit” onto each box – in some cases, it would be the whole organisation; in others, it would be as many users as that physical site would have (since good practice was then to deploy a server at every major location); some would be determined by how many mailboxes that server could handle before it ran out of puff. As wide area networks got faster, more reliable and less expensive, and as server hardware got better and cheaper, the bottleneck for lots of organisations stopped being about how many users the server could handle, and more about how many users was IT comfortable in having the server handle.

On closer inspection, this “comfort” level would typically come about for 2 reasons:

  • Spread the active workload – If the server goes down (either planned or unplanned), I only want it to affect a percentage of the users rather than everyone. This way, I’d maybe have 2 medium-sized servers and put 250 users on each, rather than 500 users on one big server.
  • Time to Recovery is lower – If I had to recover the server because of a disaster, I only have so many hours (as the SLA might state) to get everything back up and running, and it will take too long to restore that much data from tape. If I split the users across multiple servers, then the likelihood of a disaster affecting more than one server may be lower, and,  in the event of total site failure, the recovery of multiple servers can at least be done in parallel.

(Of course, there were other reasons, initially – maybe people didn’t believe the servers would handle the load, so played safe and deployed more than they really needed… or third party software, like Blackberry Enterprise Server, might have added extra load so they’d need to split the population across more servers).

So the ultimate bottleneck is the time it takes for a single database or single server’s data to be brought back online in the event of total failure. This time will be a function of how fast the backup media was (older DAT type tape backup systems might struggle to do 10Gb/hr, whereas a straight-to-disk backup might do 10 or 20 times that rate), and is often referred to in mumbo-jumbo whitepaper speak as “RTO” or Recovery Time Objective. If you’ve only got 6 hours before you need to have the data back online, and it takes 20Gb/hr to recover the data from your backup media, then at a maximum you could only afford to have 120Gb to be recovered and still have a hope of meeting the SLA.

There are a few things that can be done to mitigate this requirement:

  • Agree a more forgiving RTO.
  • Accept a lower RPO (Recovery Point Objective is, in essence, the stage you need to get to – eg have all the data back up and running, or possibly have service restored but with no historical data, such as with dial-tone recovery in Exchange).
  • Reduce the volume of data which will need to be recovered in series – by separating out into multiple databases per server, or by having multiple servers.

Set realistic expectations

Now, it might sound like a non-starter to say that the RTO should be longer, or the RPO less functional – after all, the whole point of backup & disaster recovery is to carry on running even when bad stuff happens, right?

It’s important to think about why data is being backed up in the first place: it’s a similar argument to using clustering for high availability. You need to really know if you’re looking for availability, or recoverability. Availability means that you can keep a higher level of service, by continuing to provide service to users even when a physical server or other piece of infrastructure is no longer available, for whatever reason. Recoverability, on the other hand, is the ease and speed with which service and/or data can be brought online following a more sever failure.

I’ve spoken with lots of customers over the years who think they want clustering, but in reality they don’t know how to operate a single server in a well-managed and controlled fashion, so adding clusters would make things less reliable, not more. I’ve also spoken with customers who think they need site resilience, so if they lose their entire datacenter, they can carry on running from a backup site.

Since all but the largest organisations tend to run their datacenters in the same place where their users are (whether that “datacenter” is a cupboard under the stairs or the whole basement of their head office), in the event that the entire datacenter is wiped out, it’s quite likely that they’ll have lots of other things to worry about – like where the users are going to sit? How is the helpdesk going to function, and communicate effectively with all those now-stranded users? What about all the other, really mission critical applications? Is email really as important as the sales order processing system, or the customer-facing call centre?

In many cases, I think it is acceptable to have a recovery point objective of, within a reasonable time, delivering a service that will enable users to find each other and to send & receive mail. I don’t believe it’s always worth the effort and expense that would be required to bring all the users’ email online at the same time – I’d rather see mail service restored within an hour, even if it takes 5 days for the historical data to come back, compared to 8 hours for restoring any kind of service which included all the old data.

How much data to fit on each server in the first place

Microsoft’s best practice advice has been to limit the size of each Exchange database to 50Gb (in Exchange 2003), to make the backup & recovery process more manageable. If you built Exchange 2003 servers with the maximum number of databases, this would set the size “limit” of each server to 1Tb of data. In Exchange 2007, this advisory “limit” has been raised to 100Gb maximum per database, unless the server is replicating the data elsewhere (using the Continuous Replication technology), in which case it’s 200Gb per database. Oh, and Exchange 2007 raises the total number of databases to 50, so in theory, each server could now support 10Tb of data and still be recoverable within a reasonable time.

The total amount of data that can be accommodated on a single server is often used to make a decision about how many mailboxes to host there, and how big they should be – it’s pretty common to see sizes limited to 200Mb or thereabouts, though it does vary hugely (see the post on the Exchange Team blog from a couple of years ago to get a flavour). Exchange 2007 now defaults to having a mailbox quota of 10 times that size: 2Gb, made possible through some fundamental changes to the way Exchange handles and stores data.

Much of this storage efficiency now derives from Exchange 2007 running on 64-bit (x64) servers, meaning there’s potentially a lot more memory available for the server to cache disk contents in. A busy Exchange 2003 server (with, say, 4000 users), might only have enough memory to cache 250Kb of data for each user – probably not even enough for caching the index for the user’s mailbox, let alone any of the data. In Exchange 2007, the standard recommendation would be to size the server so as to have 5Mb or even 10Mb of memory for every user, resulting in dramatically more efficient use of the storage subsystem. This pay-off means that a traditional performance bottleneck on Exchange of the storage subsystem’s I/O throughput, is reduced considerably.

NET: Improvements in the underlying storage technology within Exchange 2007 mean that it is feasible to store a lot more data on each server, without performance suffering and without falling foul of your RTO/SLA goals.

I’ve posted before about Sizing Exchange 2007 environments.

What to back up and how?

When looking at backup and recovery strategies, it’s important to consider exactly what is being backed up, how often, and why.

Arguably, if you have a 2nd or 3rd online (or near-online) copy of a piece of data, then it’s less important to back it up in a more traditional fashion, since the primary point of recovery will be another of the online copies. The payoff for this approach is that it no longer matters as much if it takes a whole weekend to complete writing the backup to whatever medium you’re using (assuming some optical or magnetic media is still in play, of course), and that slower backup is likely to be used only for long-term archival or for recovery in a true catastrophe when all replicas of the data are gone.

Many organisations have sought to reduce the volume of data on Exchange for the purposes of meeting their SLAs, or because keeping large volumes of data on Exchange was traditionally more expensive due to the requirements for high-speed (and often shared) storage. With having more memory in an Exchange server due to it being 64-bit, the hit on I/O performance can be much lower, meaning that a 2007 server could host more data with the same set of disks than an equivalent 2003 server would (working on the assumption that Exchange will have historically hit disk I/O throughput bottlenecks before running out of disk space). The simplest way to reduce the volume of data stored on Exchange (and therefore, data which needs to be backed up and recovered on Exchange), is to reduce the mailbox quota of the end users.

In the post, Exchange mailbox quotas and ‘a paradox of thrift’, I talked about the downside of trying too hard to reduce mailbox sizes – the temptation is for the users to stuff everything into a PST file and have that being backed up (or risk being lost!) outside of Exchange. Maybe it’s better to invest in keeping more data online on Exchange, such that it’s always accessible from any client (unlike some archiving systems which require client-side software, thereby rendering the data unaccessible to non-Outlook clients), not replicated to users’ PCs when running in Cached Mode, and not being indexed for easy retrieval by either the Exchange Server or by the client PC.

NET: Taking data off Exchange and into either user’s PST archive files, or a centralised archiving system, may reduce the utility of the information by making it less easy to find and access, and could introduce more complex data management procedures as well as potential additional costs of ownership.

Coming to a datacenter near you

An interesting piece of “sleeper” technology may help reduce the discussions of backup technique: known simply as DPM, or System Center Data Protection Manager to give it its full title. DPM has been available for a while and targeted at backing up and restoring file server data, but the second release (DPM 2007) is due soon, and adds support for Exchange (as well as Sharepoint and SQL databases). In essence, DPM is an application which runs on Windows Server, that is used to manage snap-shots of the data source(s) it’s been assigned to protect. The server will happily take snaps at timely intervals and can keep them in a near-line state or archive them to offline (ie tape) storage for archival.

DPM 2007-05 graphic B

With very low cost but high-capacity disks (such as Serial-Attached SCSI arrays or even SATA disks deployed in fault-tolerant configurations), it could be possible to have DPM servers capable of backing up many Tbs of data as the first or second line of backup, before spooling off to tapes on an occasional basis for offsite storage. A lot of this technology has been around in some form for years (with storage vendors typically having their own proprietary mechanisms to create & manage the snapshots), but with a combination of Windows’ Volume Shadowcopy Services (VSS), Exchange’s support for VSS, and DPM’s provision of the back-end to the whole process, the cost of entry could be significantly lower.

NET: Keeping online snapshots of important systems doesn’t need to be as expensive as in the past, and can provide a better RTO and RPO than alternatives.

So, it’s important to think about how you backup and restore the Exchange servers in your organisation, but by using Exchange 2007, you could give the users a lot more quota that they’ve had before. Using Managed Folders in Exchange, you could cajole the users into keeping this data more free of stuff they don’t need to keep, and to more easily keep the stuff they do. All the while, it’s now possible to make sure the data is backed up quickly and at much lower cost than would have been previously possible with such volumes of data.

Lelouch’s “C’etait un Rendezvous” gets mashed

RendezvousSomeone has taken the petrol-heads’ classic film, a 9-minute dash through early morning Paris known simply as “Rendezvous“, and built a mash-up between Google Video and Google Maps, to show the route he was taking. Who needs another excuse to watch this film? Well, you’ve got it now.

Rendezvous, if you hadn’t heard the story, was a film shot by French director Claude Lelouch, allegedly driven by a professional driver at the wheel of Lelouch’s Ferrari 275GTB. In reality, it was a Mercedes saloon and it was Lelouch himself driving, and later dubbed the soundtrack (though it does sound pretty realistic to me).

Legend has it that he was arrested immediately following the first showing of the film: no surprise, since what it shows is completely illegal – driving at over 100mph through red-lights, the wrong way down one-way streets etc. It’s still strangely compelling, though, even if you know it’s a bit of a fake…

(thanks to Steve for the link)

BBC iPlayer kicks up a stink

It’s been interesting reading various news articles about the fact that the soon-to-be-released BBC iPlayer application will initially be available only to Internet Explorer and Windows XP users. The Register reports that a group called the Open Source Consortium is due to meet with the BBC Trust since the service will not be available at all to users (for example) of Firefox or Linux OS.

The Guardian‘s coverage points out that the same issues behind the iPlayer are shared with the commercial broadcasters’ services (ie Channel 4 and Sky). Channel 4 says:

Will I be able to access 4oD on my Mac?

Unfortunately not at the launch of 4oD.
This is an industry-wide issue caused because the accepted Digital Rights Management (DRM) system used to protect online video content, which is required by our content owners, is not compatible with Apple Mac hardware and software. The closed DRM system used by Apple is not currently available for licence by third parties and there is no other Mac-compatible DRM solution which meets the protection requirements of content owners. Unfortunately, we are therefore unable to offer 4oD content to Mac users at this stage.

The fact is, all of these services are being required to use DRM since they don’t own much of the content they’re “broadcasting”, and the content owners are saying that they’ll only allow it to be broadcast if it can be protected. And nobody has (yet) built a DRM system that is up to the job of securing the content, for the other platforms in question (with the exception of FairPlay, which Apple won’t license).

Someone from the BBC comments about the fact that the Windows DRM may be a target for hackers…

“We expect it to get broken. When it gets broken, Microsoft releases a new version [of DRM] and the application gets updated. It’s an imperfect solution. But it’s the least imperfect solution of them all.”

So, it’s interesting that the Open Source Consortium is threatening to take this whole thing to the European Union under an anti-trust banner. What’s better – provide an innovative service to 70-85% of the market, or have no service to anyone because the content providers won’t allow it? Sure, the latter example is “fairer” since it doesn’t favour one platform vs another, but is it really in the best interests of the end users…?

Exchange mailbox quotas and a ‘paradox of thrift’

The study of economics throws up some fantastic names for concepts or economic models, some of which have become part of the standard lexicon, such as the Law of Diminishing Returns, or the concept of opportunity cost, which I’ve written about before.

thrift.gifThough it sounds like it might be something out of Doctor Who, The Paradox of Thrift is a Keynesian concept which basically says that, contrary to what might seem obvious, saving money (as in people putting money into savings accounts) might be bad for the economy (in essence, if people saved more and spent or invested less, it would reduce the amount of money in circulation and cause an economic system to deflate). There’s a similar paradox to managing mailbox sizes in Exchange – from an IT perspective it seems like a good thing to reduce the total volume of mail on the server, since it costs less to manage all the disks and there’s less to backup and restore.

Ask the end users, however, and it’s probably a different story. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people grumble that they can’t send email because their mailbox has filled up (especially if they’ve been away from the office). End users might argue they just don’t have time to keep their mailbox size low through carefully ditching mail that they don’t need to keep, and filing the stuff that they do.

I guess it’s like another principle in economics – the idea that we have unlimited wants, but a limited set of resources with which to fulfil those wants & needs. The whole point of economics is to make best use of these limited resources to best satisfy the unlimited wants. Many people (with a few exceptions) would agree that they never have enough money – there’ll always be other, more expensive ways to get rid of it.

It’s important to have a sensible mailbox quota or the paradox of being too stingy may come back and bite you. Some organisations will take mail off their Exchange servers and drop it into a central archive, an approach which solves the problem somewhat but introduces an overhead of managing that archive (not to mention the cost of procurement). I’d argue that it’s better to use Managed Folders facilities in Exchange to manage the data.

The true paradox of mailbox quota thrift kicks in if the users have to archive everything to PST files, then you’ve just got the problem of how to make sure that’s backed up… especially since it’s not supported to have them stored on a network drive (though that doesn’t stop people from doing it… Personal folder files are unsupported over a LAN or over a WAN link). Even worse (from a backup perspective) is that Outlook opens all the PST files configured in its profile, for read/write. So what this means is that every one of the PST files in your Outlook profile gets its date/time stamp updated every time you run Outlook.

This of course means that if you’re storing your PSTs on a network share (tsk, tsk), and that file share is being backed up every night (as many are), then your PSTs will be backed up every night, regardless of whether the job is incremental/differential or full. I’ve seen large customers (eg a 100,000+ user bank) who estimate that over 50% of the total data they back up, every day, is PST files. Since PSTs are used as archives by most people, by definition the contents don’t change much, but that’s irrelevant – the date/time stamp is still updated every times they’re opened.

So as well as losing any benefit of single-instance storage by leaving the data in Exchange (or getting the users to delete it properly), you’re consuming possibly massive amounts of disk space on file servers, and having to deal with huge amounts of data to be backed up every night, even if it doesn’t change.

If you had an Exchange server with 1,000 users, and set the mailbox quota at 200Mb, you might end up with 75% quota usage and with 10% single instance ratio, you’d have about 135Gb of data on that server, which would be backed up in full every week, with incremental or differential backups every night in between (which will be a good bit smaller since not all that much data will change day to day).

If each of those users had 1Gb of PST files (not at all extraordinary – I currently have nearly 15Gb of PSTs loaded into Outlook! – even with a 2Gb quota on the mailbox, which is only 30% full), then you could be adding 1Tb of data to the file servers, hurting the LAN performance by having those PSTs locked open over the network, and being backed up every day… Give those users a 2Gb mailbox quota, and stop them from using PSTs altogether, and they’d be putting 1.2Tb worth of data onto Exchange, which might be more expensive to keep online than 1Tb+ of dumb filestore, but it’s being backed up more appropriately and can be controlled much better. 

So: don’t be miserly with your users’ mailbox quotas. Or be miserly, and stop them from using PSTs altogether (in Outlook 2003) or stop the PSTs from getting any bigger (in Outlook 2007).

How to handle URLs with spaces in Outlook, Word etc

I was talking to a customer earlier today who was envisioning frustrations around using click-to-dial type functionality within OCS, where they’ll be copying & pasting phone numbers around. Now if the number is nicely formatted (and E.164 compliant…) then it won’t be problem, but the nearer number formatting gets to being easily machine-readable, the further it gets from being human-friendly.

This reminded me of a nice tip for dealing with odd URLs or other links (particularly UNC names such as \\server\share\folder name\file name) which might contain spaces. In many applications now (chiefly Word and Outlook, but others – such as Windows Live Writer – support it too), it’s possible to write or paste in a URL and have the application delay processing it and presenting it as a hyperlink.

Instead of ending up with \\server\share\folder name\file name, which you’ll get by starting to type the link, begin it with a “<“, then type or paste the whole URL, then close with a “>”. Now when you press space or enter, the app will likely process the hyperlink, remove the <>s and all is well. If you do end up with a half-formed link, go to the start of the text (before it becomes a hyperlink), enter the “<“, then jump to the end of the hyperlinked text (eg the end of “\folder”), and press backspace – this should remove the active bit. Finally, jump to the end, add your “>” and press space to complete.

Tags as long-running transactions

Tagging: Brett, John, Allister, Darren and Julius.

When it comes to transaction processing, most systems think in terms of very short increments of time – eg taking money from an ATM, the whole transaction is done in a few seconds. Some may take longer – like transferring money between two different banks, which could take a few days. Others are maybe much more long-running – such a house sale and purchase, which could last for weeks and weeks.

So it is with some blog follow up. I only just spotted that Steve the Geek had tagged me a few weeks ago, and maybe it’s time to follow up…

  • name at least 5 programs (web or standalone) that you love that go against the mainstream ( optional – reason why – if possible)
  • name at least 5 programs that you dislike; OSes not included, (optional – reason why – if possible)
  • tag at least 5 other people

So here goes…


  • Ilium’s eWallet – a super cool bit of cheap software which allows easy maintenance of confidential stuff on a PC (maybe the legions of passwords you might manage, or the account numbers of all your credit cards or bank accounts), and can synch them down to your Smartphone, Pocket PC or Palm. It’s one of the first things I install on any new mobile device or after rebuilding a PC. Not so much against the mainstream as genre-defining.
  • Windows Live Mail – I’ve now got 3 or 4 WL/Hotmail accounts that I use, and this desktop app manages them all nicely, even integrating to the instant search in Vista. Not mainstream since a lot of people -still- don’t know it even exists.
  • Numerous web-based forums, often based on software like vBulletin or UBB. In most cases, the forum software just works really well (though sometimes they have real problems with scalability), and has come on leaps & bounds since the early web forums. So much more friendly that Usenet. FlyerTalkDigitalSpy are examples of great web forums; PistonHeads, less so. 
  • Local.Live.com – drastically needs a better name, but it’s so good in so many ways that it’s a crying shame a lot of folks still don’t know about it. I remember the first time I saw Google Earth – I though it was really impressive, even though the UI was horrible. Microsoft’s Virtual Earth (even mobile) technology has overtaken Google Maps/Google Earth IMHO.
  • At the risk of being a bit too Microsoft-centric, I’m going to add Digital Image Suite 2006 here. Not as powerful as Photoshop, maybe, but for what I need to do with it (manage photos and do the odd bit of cropping & touching up), it works really well. Shame it’s now been discontinued 🙁


  • Partition Magic – Actually, I used to like PQM because it did something that there was no other feasible way of doing – dynamically resizing and moving disk partitions whilst preserving the data on them. I’m putting it in here because it hasn’t been updated in years (since well before Symantec hoovered up the company), and has no roadmap for the future – so it isn’t compatible with Vista and never will be.
  • Almost any PC laptop utilities from the manufacturer – whether it’s Toshiba’s crazy FlashCards that keep popping up on top of everything, or their monitor program to make sure the hard disk isn’t being moved too much (??), to Dell’s QuickSet utilities, they’re almost always slow, the UI is horrible, they consume lots of memory and (in the case of Tosh), routinely just fall over, especially when shutting the machine down.
  • Siebel. Talk to anyone in Microsoft who has to use Siebel (now, amusingly, an Oracle product, but one which MS has spent years and probably $$$$ implementing), and the universal opinion is that it is absolutely horrible in almost every regard.
  • Zune software – I’m sorry, I just don’t see why it was necessary to build a separate app which (presumably) shares a lot of its guts with Windows Media Player, that has to be installed to sync with the Zune player. Why can’t Zune just consume WMP, even put a skin on it for branding purposes, but not require a different look & feel, separate registration of filetypes etc? Maybe an example of Zune trying to be a little too like iPod/iTunes.
  • Acrobat Reader. How many times have I clicked on a link in a web page to open a PDF file in a new tab in IE7, read the doc and then pressed CTRL-F4 to close that tab, only to get an error saying: “Acrobat Reader: This action cannot be performed from within an external window”… Or how many times has the PC bogged down, only to find the Acrobat Reader process – which isn’t even open and visible – merrily chewing away at all the CPU and memory it can grab? Or how many times has IE fallen over like a helicopter missing a rotor blade, only to find that the dreaded ACRORD32.EXE is behind the fault? It’s probably better now than previously, but it seriously winds me up when Acrobat falls to bits because I know that most people will just attribute it to Windows or IE.