Ignite 2018 – Exchange sessions, the good and a bit ugly

My first blog about Ignite 2018 was more about the keynotes on the first day, Microsoft’s strategy around the cloud and how various application integrate with each other and take advantage of the cloud. But I’m a technical consultant and more interested in the technical stuff. And as a MVP in ‘Office Apps and Service’  (used to be ‘Office Servers and Services’, and before that just ‘Exchange MVP’) my heart is still with Exchange. Although I also attended lots of other sessions, there are better blogs available for these technologies instead of mine 😊

Welcome to Exchange 2019

The first break-out session I attended was BRK “Welcome to Exchange 2019” by Greg Taylor and Brent Alinger. Lots of information was already available since Microsoft released the preview version of Exchange 2019, but some other interesting points were mentioned as well:

  • Exchange 2019 runs on Windows 2019 only. There are so much security features in Windows 2019 that Exchange is using, features that are not available in Windows 2016. The preview version was running on Windows 2016, but the final version won’t.
  • Windows 2019 Server Core is the recommended platform because of the lower footprint and attack surface.
  • Required Forest Functional Level is Windows 2012 R2, which may cause issues with customers I guess.
  • Minimum recommended RAM is 128 GB. Be aware, this is the recommended amount of RAM, not the required amount of RAM. This amount comes from .NET usage in Windows 2019 that does much better performance with lots amount of memory. If an Exchange 2019 server does not have 100GB or more, it won’t take advantage of a lot of these improvements. There’s also a correlation with the amount of processors in the Exchange 2019 server, and this 128 GB is related to 48 processors. If you are using less processors, the memory usage decreases as well.
  • Exchange 2019 will (at least for now) only be available via Volume Licensing. Discussions are going on whether this will lead to piracy via download sites. Microsoft is aware of this, but at this moment it’s only Volume Licensing.
  • A very cool new feature is the MCDB, or metacache database. This is a cache stored on SSD drives where metadata from the Mailbox databases is stored, like search information, folder structure etc. This will improve performance for Outlook clients running in Online Mode, not only search information, but also logon to the Mailbox is dramatically improved (I’m starting to sound like a marketing guy 😊
  • Related to the previous bullet, Search is improved (or rewritten actually) using Bing technology. The indexing information is no longer stored in a separate directory on the disk, but it is stored in the Mailbox, and thus inside the Database. This means that passive copies have the same information, and the same search indexes. A failover will now never fail because search is not healthy in replication, speeding up fail-over times.
  • And Microsoft also released the documentation for Exchange 2019, which can be found on https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/Exchange/exchange-server?view=exchserver-2019.

Unfortunately this session is not available online yet. It is recorded, but somehow not yet available.

As a side note, Microsoft has organized a side meeting with the Exchange and Outlook Product Groups and a couple of (Exchange) MVPs. In this 2 hour session we could have a decent discussion with all Program Managers in the room, and we were able to express our deepest concerns regarding the announcements and presentations at Ignite. Some people prefer to do this on Twitter, but we think it’s better to discuss with the Program Managers directly. They gave us additional background information, but at the same time were impressed by the feedback we gave them, and will take it back to HQ. They won’t change the product of course, but the marking messeag and documentation (background information) around Exchange 2019 will certainly change.

Securing Exchange Online from modern threats

Another interesting session was BRK3148 “Securing Exchange Online from modern threats”. It all about security, and what steps the bad guys usually take to attach a platform like Exchange Online. And it’s incredibly easy. Every heard of ‘password spray’? This a brute force attack, but the other way around. The bad guy has a list of usernames (UPN = Email address to make their life easy) and standard passwords like Summer2018 or Spring2018. But with a spray attack they take a password, and try this against all users. If not successful then try the next password against all users in the list. Incredibly simple, and unlike a regular brute force attack this does not result in locked out accounts. And we all know it, it’s a matter of little time before a simple password is compromised. In the demo the presenter shows how easy it is, and once logged on how to continue with elevated privileges.

The good news is, this presentation is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/jnUUioUU_eY

Hybrid Exchange: making it easier and faster to move to the cloud

Exchange hybrid is also a hot topic. Last year Jeff Kizner did a session on hybrid, and announced Microsoft was working on removing the last Exchange server when all Mailboxes are moved to the cloud. Expectations were high when attending this years session BRK3143 “Hybrid Exchange: making it easier and faster to move to the cloud”.

The first part of this presentation is about the work done on the Organization Configuration Transfer in the Hybrid Configuration Wizard. Still not finished, but a lot of the configuration information cannot be copied over to Exchange Online. It is copying to Exchange Online, there’s no synchronization. So when making changes in Exchange on-premises, they are not transferred automatically to Exchange Online. You have to either make the changes in Exchange Online, or run the Hybrid Configuration Wizard again.

Completely new (and not available yet) is the Hybrid Agent that runs on-premises. The hybrid agent works with an endpoint in Microsoft Azure, and is outbound HTTPS traffic only. Exchange Online is configured with the HCW to use the same endpoint in Microsoft Azure. This way only outbound connections are used, and it is no longer needed to make all kinds of firewall changes when configuring Exchange Hybrid. Even better, when Autodiscover and Exchange on-premises are not published this still works, since only Outbound connections are used, and configuration information is stored safely in the endpoint in Microsoft Azure.

Exchange Hybrid Agent

TargetSharingEpr

At this moment it is only going to work with Free/Busy and Mailbox moves using the MRS, but it’s a good start. Next versions can include more features, and using this technique everything is possible, imaging Microsoft Search that’s searching your on-premises Mailbox servers…. I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, and I have an idea how the average security officer will react to a solution like this. Some people will refer to this as a man in the middle that has full access to your Exchange environment (something with Exchange Trusted Subsystem). Also, the Hybrid Agent only supports auto-update, and I’m not sure if I want that to happen on my Exchange servers. The good news, you can run the Agent on dedicated servers instead of the Exchange servers, as long as these servers have a decent Internet connection.

The Exchange Product Group released a blogpost on both topics, which can be found on https://blogs.technet.microsoft.com/exchange/2018/09/26/announced-improvements-to-hybrid-publishing-and-organization-configuration-transfer/.

Also, the presentation itself is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/QhOh5RCcLu8

Unfortunately not a single word about that last Exchange server on-premises, so at this point this will need to be available for some time I’m afraid.

Email search in a flash! Accelerating Exchange 2019 with SSDs

As already mentioned in the first section of this blog, Microsoft introduced Metacache Database (MCDB) in Exchange 2019. Exchange 2019 will now work in the regular JBOD solutions, but now added are SSD disks in the servers. These SSD disks are used as an additional cache (special data from the mailbox database is stored additionally on the SSD disks) to speed up performance. Think about the message table, mailbox information, message metadata information, all kinds of information that’s regularly needed by Outlook clients, and can now be retrieved by the Exchange 2019 at a much faster pace.

Personally I think this is a very impressive technology, but I don’t see it appear at customers anytime soon. It is build on top of a DAG (should be no issue), but is also using AutoReseed as outlined in the Preferred Architecture. The SSD versus spinning disks ration is 1:3, so for a 12 disk Exchange server, three SSD disks are needed. Now, I don’t see a lot of customers deploying Exchange 2019 this way, at least not the smaller organizations, but maybe these customers are better off with Exchange Online, but that’s a different discussion.

metacache database

metacache guidance

The technology is impressive, and I’m looking forward to test this is a lab. Unfortunately this feature is not yet available in the preview version of Exchange, so you have to wait until the official release of Exchange 2019 later this year.

The presentation is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/VHrScskhCQk

Stay tuned for more information…

 

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