"Software + services" is Microsoft's mantra for its portfolio of communications and collaboration offerings. Most of the time, people think of this combination as referring to services that duplicate the functionality of on-premises services. However, it has another meaning: services that enhance the functionality of on-premises services. Think of these services as companions to, not replacements for, products such as Microsoft Exchange Server, and their value becomes clear: They help Microsoft make its server products more attractive while at the same time making some aspect of management or maintenance easier.

The Microsoft Exchange Server Remote Connectivity Analyzer (ExRCA) is a great example of such a service. It's a website that lets you test several aspects of your Exchange organization's remote connectivity. The basic premise couldn't be any simpler: You plug in a test account name and password, and the analyzer uses them to perform the same steps that an actual Exchange client would use to make the connection. This service is a terrific way to troubleshoot connection problems, many of which are very difficult to duplicate when connecting from inside a corporate network.

ExRCA can check five different protocols:

  • Exchange ActiveSync (EAS), the protocol used by mobile devices to connect directly to Exchange servers
  • Outlook 2007 Autodiscover, the protocol that lets Outlook turn your username and password into a complete set of configuration parameters
  • Exchange ActiveSync Autodiscover, the variant of the Autodiscover protocol used to enable automatic account configuration on mobile devices
  • Outlook 2003 RPC/HTTP
  • Inbound SMTP email sent to your Exchange servers

Each of these tests comprises a set of specific checks. For example, the EAS test performs the following checks:

  1. It checks to see that the DNS name you specify can be resolved.
  2. It checks TCP port 443 to verify that the server at the address specified by the DNS name is listening for SSL connections.
  3. It retrieves the server certificate proffered by the server and checks it for validity (although you can skip this step).
  4. It verifies that the server is offering the correct set of HTTP authentication methods.
  5. It checks the behavior of the server by issuing EAS commands such as OPTIONS, FolderSync, and Sync, recording the results of each issued command.

The results of these tests are presented in an easy-to-read report, with expandable sections that show the errors or successes of each individual test. This format, which will be familiar to users of the Microsoft Exchange Best Practices Analyzer (ExBPA), makes it easy to quickly identify anything about your environment that's broken so you can more easily fix it.

ExRCA is clearly labeled as a beta product, and there's no guarantee that it will be able to spot every potential type of connectivity problem. However, it's an extremely useful tool, and it's free—how can you not love that?