Re: exchange list Re: Help please

  • From: "Thomas W Shinder" <tshinder@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "[ExchangeList]" <exchangelist@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 7 Apr 2003 08:41:53 -0500

Hey guys:

Here's an article I wrote on this subject from the Cramsession NetAdmin

1) Feature: How to Solve Computer Networking Related Problems

Let's face it, our jobs are about solving problems. It you don't like 
solving problems, you probably shouldn't be working with computers and 
computer networking. When the day comes when hardware and software are 
able to solve problems on their own, that will be the day when we need
find something else to do for a living. The good news is that as
and software become increasing complex, the higher the probability that 
something will go wrong, the lower the probability that the hardware or 
software will be will be able to fix itself and the guarantee that it
be more difficult than ever to determine what the problem is and how to 
fix it.

What methods do you use to solve a new problem? What goes into problem 
solving problems and what are the prerequisites to solving any problem? 
I'd break the requirements and methods into the following areas:

*       Basic understanding of the technologies
*       The ability to formulate the right question
*       Knowledge of the available problem solving resources
*       The ability to use the problem solving resources effectively

Basic Knowledge

You won't even know where to begin if you don't have a basic
of the technology. For example, suppose you're an Active Directory
and you know everything there is to know about Windows 2000 Active 
Directory. Someone puts an ISA Server 2000 firewall at the edge of your 
network. Everything is working fine and then Internet access stops. You 
don't know anything about ISA Server 2000 firewalls. How can you
solve the problem? All you know is that "the Internet doesn't work any 

How often have you heard that sort of question? "The Internet doesn't
any more. Why?" or "The Active Directory isn't working right, how can I 
fix it?" or "the Exchange Server isn't getting mail, I require a
now". Those are observations, not problem statements. 

In order to solve a problem, you must have a basic understanding of the 
technology so that you're able to at least categorize the problem. For 
example, instead of saying "the Exchange Server doesn't work", you would

say "the SMTP service isn't receiving mail from external SMTP servers,
its receiving mail from internal SMTP clients and internal SMTP servers 
just fine". At this point you've narrowed the problem down to "my
Server isn't receiving mail from external SMTP servers.

Don't even try to solve problems with unknown technologies. You're
to make the problem worse and much more difficult for the next guy to
and fix if you do.

Asking Questions

The second key to effective problem solving is formulating the right 
questions. Once you've identified the problem, you can formulate a 
question or series of questions that guide you on your search for
For example, suppose you've identified and  summarized the problem with 
the Exchange Server as we have above. You've identified that the
Server is not accepting mail from external SMTP servers. What kind of 
questions would you ask?

*       What would cause the Exchange Server to stop receiving mail from

        external Exchange Servers?
*       What would stop inbound access for TCP port 25?
*       Are any other protocols affected, or is it just TCP port 25?
*       Are any other servers affected by this inbound SMTP problem?
*       What services need to work properly in order to receive mail
        external SMTP servers?
*       What protocols, other than SMTP, are required to receive mail
        external SMTP servers?
*       Are the SMTP packets arriving at the gateway? Are they arriving
        the internal SMTP relay? Are they arriving to the Exchange

This is just a small sample of questions that you might ask yourself
trying to solve the problem "external SMTP servers can't send SMTP 
messages to my Exchange Server". The question asking process serves a
important function. It causes you to focus on the problem and then
you into the *context* of the problem, not just the problem itself. You 
know problems don't live in isolation, so you first start thinking about

"direct causes" (like problems with the Exchange Server itself), and
you consider "indirect" causes (like "what other services are required
get SMTP messages to the Exchange Server?")

It would be great if problem solving were as simple as asking and 
answering the right questions. The big challenge is to ask the right 
questions, and the right questions might not be the first ones you ask.
problem solving were easy, you could actually use the decision trees in 
the Resource Kit to solve your Windows problems! <g>. 

The question asking process engages what you know both consciously and 
what you know unconsciously. It "engages your brain" and starts both
conscious (the "thinking" process that you're aware of) and the 
unconscious (the processes that you're not aware of) problem solving 
facilities to go into action. What's amazing is that the unconscious 
problem solving mechanisms continue to work even when you're done with 
consciously thinking about the problem. But you have to "feed" these 
unconscious processes with a lot of well considered questions.

You can set about looking for answers once you have your questions.
be able to answer many of the questions using information you already 
know. For example, you know you can determine if the SMTP packets have 
arrived at the firewall, SMTP relay and Exchange Server by running a 
packet sniffer on the interfaces responsible for accepting these
Just set up the sniffers and go to an external network client to send a 
message via an external SMTP server and watch the action.

Problem Solving Resources

Sometimes you'll run up against a wall and need extra help. Where can

*       Look up the answer in a book
*       Use a mailing list dedicated to your subject
*       Use a newsgroup dedicated to your subject
*       Use a search engine like or
*       Pay a consultant

The first method, looking up an answer in a book, is how things used to
done. I think most of us now use books more for entertainment and 
education more than we use them for problem solving. Book indexes just 
aren't very good at helping solve problems.

A mailing list is a great way to solve problems. The key is figuring out

what mailing list to ask the question. The trick is to ask the question 
correctly. Make sure you do your research first so that you can
the question according to the traditions and mores of the group. If you 
don't, the "list trolls" will shoot you down.

Newsgroups are probably the best place to find answers. Just remember
newsgroups share the same burden as mailing lists: you need to formulate

your questions correctly or you'll not get an answer or worse, scorn
be poured upon you. The great thing about newsgroups is this is the
the best and brightest hang out. Although not technically newsgroups,
can often find excellent advice on Web boards, such as those you find at 

Search engines are the problem solving method of choice among many 
experienced problem solvers. For example, you can use Google to search
only Web sites, but newsgroups as well. The requirement is to ask the 
right question by formulating the right query. Putting together good 
queries is a matter of trial and error combined with experience.

And that brings us to the last step: using these problem solving
effectively. Mailing lists and newsgroups are always a crapshoot because

you have to hope someone will take time to think about your problem and 
know the answer. On the other hand, Google is nice because if you type
the question you often will be able to come up with an answer, even if 
there is no specific article that contains the precise answer to your 
questions or problem.

Using a Consultant

Your resource of last resort is the consultant. The consultant is an
specialist who has insights and knowledge of the subject that's giving 
your problems. They see things you don't see. However, you have to be
to pick the right specialist. All specialists consider problems to be 
nails and they are hammers. If the problem is the "nail" of their 
specialty, you could end up wasting a lot of money.

Using Google

Let's return to our example and add a twist. During our question asking 
process, we discovered that the firewall protecting the network is ISA 
Server. What search string would you use when you get to the Google
page? How about:

"isa server" inbound exchange stops

Most of the stuff on the first page doesn't look very interesting. Look
the entries on the second and third page. Nothing obvious stick out. 
However, while reading the results of the Google search, you realize
you forgot about the spam filtering software on the SMTP relay. Google 
helped you because there were a lot of advertisements for spam filtering

software! You check the spam whacker and you realize that your
had misconfigured the software and it was identifying everything as

Problem solved. (BTW -- this was a real life problem).


Problem solving requires basic knowledge, question asking, knowledge of 
available question answering resources and the ability to use the 
resources effectively. There's one more thing: practice. The more often 
you put yourself into problem solving mode, the better you'll get.
how the "old pro's" are able to seem like magicians when they solve 
problems. They do it everyday and go through these processes so quickly 
that they don't expend much energy consciously engaging their problem 
solving processes. They just kick in!

Take some time to help other people with their problems if you don't
enough problems to solve at work. Make a goal to solve 2 or 5 or 10 or
problems a day. You'll notice that you'll be able to solve more problems

each day as you get better. I hope you you'll benefit from what you've 
read here and please let me know if you have your own problem solving
and tricks.

Thomas W Shinder, .Net Admin bi-Weekly Editor
Co-Author, Configuring ISA Server 2000  
Co-Author, ISA Server and Beyond 

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