Tools that can check their own configuration and let you know when something's wrong--or better yet, fix themselves--are a growing trend in enterprise software and hardware. IBM, for example, touts its "self-healing" computers, and Microsoft pushes the use of automated assessment tools such as the Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer (MBSA). The whole idea behind such tools is simple: An unfortunately large percentage of problems in most complex software packages can be traced to a small number of root causes. Having a tool that can identify and help fix those root causes will make customers happier than having to find and fix the problems on their own.

Enter the new Microsoft Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer, which you can download now from the Microsoft Download Center (http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=DBAB201F-4BEE-4943-AC22-E2DDBD258DF3&displaylang=en). This new tool checks your Exchange architecture design and implementation against known best practices, looking for the most common mistakes, misconfigurations, and errors and producing an easy-to-understand checklist of suggested fixes. Obviously, no one tool can check for the optimal configuration on every Exchange server: A configuration that works well for a small nonprofit might be totally wrong for a midsized manufacturing company, and vice versa. But by focusing on best practices, the analyzer does manage to cover most problem areas.

To give you a few examples of the type of stuff the tool looks for, I ran it on my single-server configuration at home. The Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer identified the following best-practice violations: - Exchange was installed on a domain controller (DC), which Microsoft supports but doesn't recommend for most configurations. - My SMTP queues were on the same disk as my Exchange databases. - I hadn't changed the value of the SystemPages registry value to its recommended value (as described in the Microsoft article "How to optimize memory usage in Exchange Server 2003" at http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=815372). - No primary WINS server was defined.

For my setup, these issues aren't serious. But the tool checks several hundred items, many of which can be serious in larger and more complex environments. For example, the analyzer indicates how many mailboxes, domains, recipient policies, address lists, and various Exchange objects it finds and warns you if there are too many (e.g., two Exchange organization objects) or not enough (e.g., no Schedule+ Free/Busy folder). You can tell the tool to skip certain tests, and you can use your choice of tools to post-process the report output, giving you a welcome degree of flexibility.

The tool's rules and reports are all defined through an XML schema that I expect Microsoft to expand. Exchange exposes so many parameters and settings through the Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) interface that Microsoft could easily expand the Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer to incorporate other aspects of Exchange configuration. This tool is worth downloading and running now, though. You might be surprised by what it flags in your environment.