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Eight Exchange skills and topics every admin should know

If you want to take your Exchange knowledge to the next level, tackle the tough topics and find ways to validate what you know.

In part one, we looked at the MCSE: Messaging certification and how certified IT pros can take their skills to...

the next level. We covered the real value of the certification, how to prepare for the certification exam and some ways admins can move beyond basic knowledge.

Now we'll take a closer look at some of the advanced topics all Exchange admins should know to help them move their Exchange skills to the next level. We'll also look at some easy steps admins can take to validate their existing and new knowledge.

Advanced Exchange skills and topics you need to know

Having these eight skills, which most admins struggle with, can make you more valuable and will readily transition between different versions of Exchange and Office 365.

  1. Learn more about Exchange PowerShell. Gaining a real understanding of Exchange PowerShell is a key step. For the MCSE, you'll need to learn the basics, such as how to find and set mailbox information. But you need to be able to do much more than that. Learn how to automate an environment to ease provisioning and proactively avoid downtime. A great place to start is reading a book called Exchange 2013 PowerShell Cookbook.
  2. Get a full understanding of each Exchange component with some recommended reading. Through the MCSE, you've gained a high understanding of each area you were tested on. Paired with what you'll see in your job, you'll inevitably understand some areas in depth more than others. Cover-to-cover reading of both volumes of Exchange 2013 Inside Out and using those practices in your lab environment will be an enormous help.
  3. Troubleshoot complex problems with Exchange. It's no secret that the MCSM lab test involved troubleshooting a complicated problem in an Exchange environment, which reinforces how important these Exchange skills are. If you're learning with a colleague, team up and think of obscure ways to break a lab environment, break each other's environment and let the other work out how to fix it. Become familiar with performance thresholds for Exchange so when you examine an environment using Perfmon, you'll know whether a high value means everything is normal or you have a problem.
  4. Learn about hybrid deployments. Many companies don't plan to move to the cloud anytime soon, but a fair number do. This number will grow over the next few years. Hybrid deployments will become more common, so understanding how to implement prerequisite components such as Active Directory Federation Services and Windows Azure Directory Sync are vital skills, along with configuring and managing a hybrid deployment. When learning about hybrid deployments in detail, you'll need to understand how to perform a hybrid configuration, how the MRS Proxy, Federation for Free/Busy and Calendar Sharing works, how mail flow works and how Exchange objects are represented and managed within hybrid environments.
  5. Integrate SharePoint, Lync and Office Web Apps. These products now integrate deeply with each other, whether it's for site mailboxes in SharePoint or unified messaging, instant messaging and archiving integration with Lync or Office Web Apps integration into all three products. Newly introduced technologies like OAuth change the way Exchange typically integrates with these applications, so in addition to understanding how to put the pieces together, understand why it works and how to troubleshoot integration.
  6. Integrate third-party products. You can't predict every third-party product you'll need to integrate with Exchange, but many products integrate in a similar way. If you haven't taken the chance to become familiar with load balancers, you should. Nearly every multiserver Exchange deployment uses one, and you can download virtual load balancers or use IIS Address Request Routing to get experience with this core technology. You can also consider learning about cloud-based spam filtering options and at least one mobile device management option since many deployments will use them.
  7. Learn about upgrading and coexistence. The difference between a successful upgrade and a failed upgrade lies in the hands of the consultant or administrator implementing it. It's easy to walk into an upgrade without understanding the intricacies, but this is where your lab environment will do you proud. If you plan on spending the next few years upgrading Exchange environments, investing the time to build a complete coexistence lab with a range of clients will pay dividends.
  8. Get back to the basics. Our final topic applies to any email environment, but many Exchange administrators bypass it. If you've had to troubleshoot an email bounce-back and had a Unix admin say that your system isn't compliant with Requests For Comment (RFCs), you really need to pay attention. If you've not administered any other email system apart from Exchange, reading this will be an eye opener. RFC articles define Internet standards for many protocols and are the key to ensuring interoperability between systems. Reading RFCs -- such as RFC2821, RFC3030, RFC1870, and RFC3207 -- will teach you how SMTP-based email works. You'll be surprised at what you don't know.

Validate the Exchange skills you've learned

We've looked at where you need to start if you want to take your Exchange skills to the next level, but how do you validate that knowledge? This is up to you, but you have options.

Make sure you've set learning goals like you've seen in this tip. Record your progress and make notes on what you've learned so you have a reference to fall back on and an indicator to verify that you've covered one area in the same depth as others.

You should also consider starting your own blog. There's always room on the Internet for more Exchange bloggers to share their knowledge on what they've learned and problems they've solved. You'll find others reading your articles, and you'll gain feedback from seasoned Exchange pros and beginners alike. This feedback can also help motivate you to learn more, which is good for your career.

About the author:
Steve Goodman is an Exchange MVP and works as a technical architect for one of the U.K.'s leading Microsoft Gold partners, Phoenix IT Group. Goodman has worked in the IT industry for 14 years and has worked extensively with Microsoft Exchange since version 5.5.

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