Memories of Microsoft IT's 7-node mega-Exchange 2003 cluster

As the years roll by, it becomes a little harder to remember all the details of the many various sessions that I've attended at different conferences. But I have very clear memories of listening to Microsoft waxing lyrical about the joys of a 7-node Exchange 2003 mega-cluster at events such as MEC EMEA. Strangely enough, I came across an old blog post that described the details of Microsoft IT's approach to achieving 99.99% uptime with Exchange 2003, which then moved me to consider just how far we have come since.

Depending on your taste and the topic under discussion, nostalgia can be either mind-bendingly boring or terrifically interesting. A few weeks ago, I was shooting the breeze with a friend about some of the old Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) events that we had attended and our attention focused on some of the EMEA events that happened at the Acropolis in Nice, France.

Amongst the stories about parties on yachts in Nice harbour, we talked about some of the headline sessions that were popular at the time, which brought us to Microsoft’s Exchange mega-cluster, described with gusto by luminaries of the product group such as Paul Bowden to massive audiences, all of whom seemed mightily impressed by the concept.

Fifteen years ago, Exchange began its relationship with clustering with the Exchange 5.5 and “Wolfpack”/Windows NT4.0 combination. Clustering was expensive and never really caught on. Moving forward a couple of years and software versions, Microsoft IT wanted to show what could really be done and so deployed a 7-node Exchange 2003 cluster.

As I recall, four of the nodes were serving client connections while two were passive and waited patiently to swing into action should another node fail. The seventh node was used for backups and other administrative operations. In the context of the times, the mega-cluster was a strange and exotic beast that was capable of supporting 16,000 active clients. Each server ran twenty databases arranged in four storage groups. Outlook 2003 (newly equipped with cached Exchange mode capability) was the client of choice – mobile clients were a minor concern. Building such a monster was a financial and technical challenge (the SAN at its core was a massive SPOF), but it seemed pretty cool too.

As I am reminded of all too frequently, the Internet has a memory, and I found a blog post by Scott Schnoll from 2005 titled “How Microsoft achieves 99.99% uptime with Exchange 2003.” Its content is a good reminder of how far the technology has advanced over the last ten years with huge advances in reducing the need for disk I/O and native high availability built into the product rather than a dependency on hardware.

One of the interesting aspects described in the post is the weekly service review. This kind of human-intense review was common practice at the time but as systems have scaled up and become more complex, much more attention is paid today to automation of monitoring, reporting, and rectification (as in Managed Availability). As the post notes, “regular reviews are very important to achieving high availability.” Even with today’s tools, great value is gained when humans cast a cold eye over the results of automation.

Today’s mega-cluster might be a sixteen-member Database Availability Group (DAG). Such a monster would be capable of supporting many more than 16,000 mailboxes, so a fairer comparison might be a four-node DAG where each database would have at least three copies. Exchange 2013 needs more CPU and memory than Exchange 2003 but today’s server hardware is much more capable too. I rather think that a four-node DAG would be cheaper in real terms by a considerable factor, perhaps ten times less depending on the selected hardware.

The investments made in Exchange over the last ten years have been of enormous benefit to on-premises customers and created the technical and economic foundation for Exchange Online/Office 365. Looking back at the mega-cluster and the excitement it engendered at the time, it’s a real reminder of just how far we’ve come.  I wonder what progress will be made in the next decade?

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Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Oct 2, 2014

I think the brass at Microsoft envisage all their customers will be on Office 365 in 10 years! Perhaps a hybrid topology is more reasonable to expect.

I do believe "email as we know it", that is, users hoarding and accumulating all junk will not be the done thing due to more stringent retention policies. The availability of other forms of more instant real time technologies - Lync, Skype, Whats App, etc will make email much less the go to communication tool of choice. Obviously we are already seeing this so apologies for stating the obvious! Perhaps email will be used for much more formal communication such as corporate announcements or legal docs, much the way faxing is still used today albeit much less commonly!

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Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro. His latest books are Office 365 for Exchange Professionals (eBook, May 2015) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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