Welcome to Exchange Management Hell

I’m a geek at heart and so enjoy managing our small collection of servers and other technological paraphernalia. Or at least I used to. My recent experience – of ‘transitioning’ our fairly trivial Microsoft Exchange 2003 installation to Exchange 2010 – has me seriously doubting the entertainment value of these activities any more.

Here’s the thing. Microsoft has made the deliberate decision (at least I assume they thought about it) to make Exchange much harder to manage since the 2003 release. The early versions of Exchange had a fairly comprehensive graphical user interface that both described the structure of the mail server components and provided the means to configure it. It was not perfect and no doubt had significant shortcomings for large organisations. But the main point is that it was well-suited to users who were not full-time Exchange Server technologists. That is the main benefit of GUIs as Microsoft should well know.

Enter the Exchange Management Shell command line system, originally introduced with Exchange 2007. Not only are there many things that cannot now be done from the scaled-down Exchange Management Console GUI, but frankly the shell is a real pig to work with. Admittedly there are helpful touches like command completion where you type in the first few characters and hit the tab key. If you are lucky you get the command you were thinking of, otherwise you have to backspace and keep trying until you lose the will to live. But there is no such help for the very long and tedious command arguments required in many instances. For example, creating a new routing group connector – a fairly trivial operation in Exchange 2003 – now requires a command line that looks like this:

New-RoutingGroupConnector -Name “Interop RGC” -SourceTransportServers “Ex2010Hub1.contoso.com” -TargetTransportServers “Ex2003BH1.contoso.com” -Cost 10 -Bidirectional $true -PublicFolderReferralsEnabled $true

Easy, huh?

Part of the challenge is in working out what some of the things referred to are and what they are called or should be set to for your installation. There are some great training opportunities here, but from a user-centred design perspective this is a nightmare. But it gets worse. As I mentioned earlier, some things have to be done using the management shell – the GUI only provides access to around 80% of features. On top of that, if my experience of moving from Exchange 2003 is anything to go by, only around 80% of the configuration parameters that are meant to be set up automatically are actually done correctly. The compounded effect is that around 40% of installation activities are going to require digging around the discussion lists and blogs trying to identify the solutions to the problems you are having and locating the magic management shell commands that might help to put them right.

Like I’ve said occasionally in earlier blogs, I am actually pro-Microsoft (really). But to me this seems a significant missed opportunity. Redmond could have shown the world what a well-constructed management interface looked like – one that explained the organisation and internal state of a potentially complex system in a self-explanatory way. Instead they have opted for a 1980’s DOS-style solution requiring much frustration and wasted effort on the part of users. So, the good news is that if you are highly-trained, full-time Exchange technologist your skills will be much in demand. For everyone else, welcome to Exchange Management Hell.

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