Microsoft Exchange 2003 – Hardware

Introduction to Exchange 2003 Hardware

I would like to stress that firstly I am an independent advisor.  Secondly that my approach to Exchange 2003 hardware, is from a software perspective.  Let me explain, my key question is: ‘What hardware does Exchange 2003 need to do a good job?’ Rather than asking: ‘How do you over clock the Xeon Processor?’.

Topics for Hardware in Exchange 2003


Server Strategy

Your first hardware decision is: How many Exchange 2003 servers do we need?  Should we go for lots of small servers, say one in each branch office, or do we favour one big server with 10 mailbox stores?  Incidentally, the latest fashion is for fewer bigger Exchange 2003 servers.

One argument that I have heard floated, is the belief that computer evolution will mimic animal evolution.  What happened with animal evolution is that creatures developed a central nervous system with one big brain, rather than mini brains at each limb.  So this theory predicts that one big, protected, pampered, Exchange 2003 server is the way in which email systems will evolve.

Hardware strategy: When buying a new server it’s common to over specify and so make the machine future proof.  In 2 years time you will be thinking about updating the software, perhaps your organization will have more users and they are likely to by producing more email data.  These factors have one thing in common, they will all benefit from a high spec machine.

What you seek in a new Exchange 2003 server is balance.  Take this system as an example:  Quad Processor – plenty of horsepower , 4GB RAM – lots of memory, 4 x 60 GB IDE disks using software raid 5.  That disk configuration would not make sense given the rest of the spec.  What you really need is SCSI or even SAN storage, with hardware RAID 5 or 1+0.

Where ever possible I would install Exchange 2003 on its own member server – even for a small company. It always pays to have a dedicated mail server away from Active Directory, file and print or SQL databases.  Just think ahead to the logistics of dealing with a virus attack, or having to restore a mail store from backup.

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Tactics for Choosing the Hardware Specification

Remember that the fault-tolerance is you watchword.  One hardware tactic that I recommend is to pick the brains of the hardware manufacturer.  Vendors have specialist Techies who can advise on an extra disk controller here, more memory there.  These extras do not cost much but can remove a bottleneck on your Exchange Server.  If you go with a top brand then, there is less need to worry about the HCL (Hardware Compatibility List), but if you ask a small company to build a server then ask for a guarantee that Exchange 2003 is fully supported.  In particular choose a disk caching system that is designed for a database.

If you are preparing to ask the financial director for money, then it’s always easier to ask for the moon and then revise downwards, than to ask for the minimum then have to go back in 3 months and beg for more RAM or another disk.

Also, remember to ask for the Enterprise Edition of Exchange 2003.  The worst thing about the standard edition is that it only supports a 16GB store for all your email.  Even if you apply SP2 there is still a 75GB limit.  (The Enterprise Edition also supports multiple storage groups and clustering.)

Hardware Preparation

Calculate roughly how many Exchange 2003 users there will be at each site.  From that figure you can determine the specification for the servers.  Realistically, if you are migrating from Exchange 5.5 then expect to have to upgrade the existing hardware so that Exchange 2003 will run efficiently.

Up to 1,500 users / server
Processor 2 GHz, Memory 1GB minimum

Over 1,500 users / server
Quad Processor,  4 GB memory  (/3GB boot.ini switch)

Disk Space – Guy’s hobby horse

Exchange 2003 uses a minimum of 200 MB on the system partition, however my advice is to make the system partition at least 10 GB, this is because there are more and more programs requesting disk space.  For example, SP1, pagefile, and spooling.

‘Best Practice’ dictates that Exchange 2003 is installed on its own partition.  Consider splitting the mail database files from the Exchange executables and DLLs.  Place the log files on yet another partition.  It is always best to calculate how big the priv1.edb is likely to be, and whether you wish to place each storage group on a separate disk.  Will your budget stretch to SAN and clustering?  What you really need here is a sketch of your server partitions showing the Exchange storage groups, logs, and \bin folder.

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  • Number of Users.  Mailbox size / limit
  • Number of Servers
  • Number of Processors
  • Memory – Watch out as Memory is traditionally the bottleneck
  • Number of Disks
  • SCSI or SAN


Seek advice from the hardware experts.  Make sure that the server will run Exchange 2003 effortlessly.  To help you decide on the best specification put some figures next to these checklists:

See Also