Improving Disk I/O and Overall Performance for Your Mail Server, Part 3

In Part One of our series we discussed some tips for setting up your mail server, including tweaks to your operating system and any other software, such as anti-virus, running on your server. In Part Two, we looked at SmarterMail itself and adjustments to items like spam filtering, file attachment sizes and more that can increase overall performance. In this final post, we’ll look at hardware settings and some tips for optimizing email clients and mobile devices.

It doesn’t even matter if you’re running SmarterMail – any mail server will benefit from the various hardware, software and end-user/device mods mentioned. If you’re doing some of these already, then you’re ahead of the curve. However, read through and see if you can grab one or two more that allow you to squeeze the most out of your mail server performance.

Devices/Clients

Use IMAP and CalDAV/CardDAV for Syncing

IMAP is a time-tested mail delivery protocol – it’s fast, it’s reliable and every device and email client supports it for retrieving incoming messages. Therefore, it’s the best choice for syncing with any email account on any device or desktop client. While things like Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) and Exchange Web Services (EWS) are a bit more robust in what they sync, they can be server-intensive. EWS is something to really review before it is implemented as it’s currently only available for Apple clients like Apple Mail and Outlook for Mac and doesn’t support syncing mobile devices. Further, Outlook users should really only sync their Inbox and not all folders. By default, setting up IMAP will sync all folders. However, syncing just the Inbox is the most efficient setup as folders can be synced “on demand,” or whenever a user clicks on it. This way, only the access that is needed is what’s being set up and processed with the mail server.

For customers concerned about syncing contacts and calendars, using the CalDAV and CardDAV protocols are great for syncing these items. This is especially true now that Windows Phone is rolling out support for both, and even Google started offering native support for both and deprecated EAS support. Android and iOS devices currently support both CalDAV and CardDAV (iOS natively supports it – Android devices do require third-party apps), so most users will get along just fine using them. Finally, IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV are all free to use – no additional costs for service providers or end users, and while Android devices currently need third-party apps, most, if not all, are available for free. Therefore, IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV are truly ideal alternatives for most customers. If you want to use something other than IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV, EAS is the way to go as it is becoming the de facto standard for syncing both mobile devices and desktop clients.

Sync Devices For a Maximum of 30 Days

On many mobile devices you can set the default time frame for syncing messages. Most people want to have as much mail on their phone as possible, but that’s not always the best solution as syncing a ton of information with a mobile device can cause issues, both on the phone as well as on the mail server itself. These issues can not only cause delays in receiving new messages but also issues with lost emails, high disk i/o and more. Therefore, it’s best to sync just a few days’ worth of email and calendar items. The maximum should be 30 days, but a better solution is 5 days or less. Since SmarterMail offers a Web-based interface, even road warriors can get by with just a few days’ worth of email and calendar items – they simply need to log in to their mail account using any Web-connected browser to see the rest.

Keep Mailboxes Small

This should go without saying, but keeping your inbox uncluttered is a great way to ensure your mail server performs well. Large mailboxes are very difficult to manage, especially when using products like Microsoft Outlook as they download EVERYTHING.

So, how can you keep a mailbox small and things working smoothly? Well, first of all, SmarterMail Enterprise offers email archiving. When used, archiving stores every email as it enters the spool. Therefore, even if an user deletes a message, a system or domain administrator can retrieve it and replace it for the user as needed. In addition, archived messages can be stored on a different drive, further saving space and disk i/o.

In addition, when syncing with a mobile device, it’s not necessary to sync every folder a user has. If only the Inbox is synced, and only a few days’ worth of email is synced, then the mail server and device will remain in harmony.

Another thing to avoid is creating sub-folders within your Inbox. Many clients, especially Outlook, don’t handle folders within a user’s Inbox very well. Mobile clients perform even worse when a user has sub-folders in their Inbox. Therefore, it’s best to avoid them whenever possible.

Try to live by the Inbox Zero rule and manage messages rather than letting them sit. Delete, file, store and remove as much as possible and your email clients, servers and mobile devices will perform much better.

Remove Large Attachments

As we noted in a previous post, disk space availability and usage can impact the performance of your mail server. A possible way to avoid this is to either set up some auto-clean rules for your emails or just flat out delete any large attachments. Of course, an alternative to deleting attachments is to move them off the mail server and to a local drive for later retrieval – maybe move them to a Google Drive or Dropbox account so they’re still available for mobile users, but not cluttering up the mail server itself.

Server Hardware

Separate Your Spool and Data

A great way to increase your mail server performance is to separate your email spool and email data into 2 separate, physical drives. This is because your spool, especially on busy mail servers, will see constant reads and writes, which will impact disk i/o. In addition, email data can grow, especially with attachments, file storage, etc. Increased disk space combined with constant reads/writes can be a recipe for disaster for a mail server. Separating these functions (along with the other suggestions discussed) can lead to longer lifespan for your disks, and less chances for corruption, downtime and headaches.

Use SSDs

This may go without saying as SSDs are generally faster than standard hard drives, but it’s worth pointing out nonetheless. SSDs are great for mail servers due to the increase in performance. Sure, they cost more, but the performance increase that a mail server admin will see, as well as their overall durability, is well-worth the investment.  In addition, there may be some concerns over the lifespan of SSDs in a high-production environment. However, implementing some of the other suggestions in this post can lengthen the lifespan of your SSDs, making them not only affordable but a real difference-maker.

RAM Drive for Spool

A RAM drive (a.k.a., a RAM Disk) offers a huge increase in performance, even over the use of SSDs. Most people use RAM drives for loading applications and running things like games or photo-editing software, so using a RAM drive for your email spool means that messages are handled much, much faster than when the spool is part of your normal drive set. There are some disadvantages to using RAM for storage, most significant are that the size is limited to the RAM on hand and RAM drives are dependent on the server staying powered up and online. Then there is the need for third-party applications to manage the drive. However, these are minor headaches compared to the overall performance gains. For more information on RAM drives, PC World has a good article on supercharging your server using a RAM drive.

Raid 10 for Data

Scalability and reliability are crucial factors for any mail server. As anyone working for a hosting provider or ISP can tell you, nothing riles up customers more than when their email is down. Most people can handle when their website is having issues, but even a minute of downtime for a mail server can bring the most patient customer to tears. Having redundancy and failover in your hardware can ensure that, even if you lose a drive, customers see very little downtime, IF they see any at all. RAID 10 offers a simple and relatively cheap way to give your mail server a high level of reliability without sacrificing any speed.

Lots of Memory in the Machine to accomplish these items above

Use of a RAM drive and other suggestions means that your mail server will need enough RAM to be able to handle any situation. 8GB or more seems to be the norm nowadays, especially as RAM prices decline, 16GB being a sweet spot for most mail server admins. Of course, it all depends on load, number of users and how users interact with the mail server. Getting some baseline statistics on memory and disk usage using your mail server’s reporting features or from the server itself is a good place to start. SmarterMail offers system administrators some reports that detail disk and memory usage, as well as user trends and summary reports. Windows offers native reporting tools that can be used as well.

So, there you have it – three blog posts detailing how you can improve the overall performance of your mail server. Of course, these suggestions just touch the surface. I’m sure there’s more that can be done, so if anyone has any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Improving Disk I/O and Overall Performance for Your Mail Server, Part 2

In Part One of our series on Improving Disk I/O for Your Mail Server, we discussed some tweaks to your operating system and any other server software, such as anti-virus, to increase overall performance. In this post, we’ll look at settings and tweaks to SmarterMail itself. If you’re doing some of these already, then you’re ahead of the curve. However, read through and see if you can grab one or two more that allow you to squeeze the most out of your mail server performance.

SmarterMail Tweaks

Setup Domain Auto-Clean Rules for Junk Mail and Deleted Items

When SmarterMail is set up it can be configured to move any spam mail to a Junk Mail folder and any deleted items can be moved to a Deleted Items folder. This is an easy and convenient way to manage these types of emails, but users can get a little distracted and leave these folders unattended. This means that the folders can grow in size and grow so large that they take up an inordinate amount of disk space. To remedy that, administrators should set up rules to automatically clean these folders after a certain amount of time, such as weekly or monthly. Setting up these rules is a great way to ensure that these folders don’t grow out of control, take up a ton of disk space and eventually bog down your disk i/o.

Limit File Attachment Sizes – Use File Storage Instead

It’s hard to get around users sending and receiving files via email. However, you can limit the size of the attachments that can be sent and then offer SmarterMail’s File Storage as an alternative for large attachments. Attachments are stored within a mail server’s GRP file, and encoded. This encoding can add anywhere from 30% – 50% to the size of the attachment. For larger files, this means that disk space can be greatly affected when limitations are absent. File Storage, on the other hand, stores the uploaded file in a user’s folder, but the file isn’t encoded, so it doesn’t increase in size. In addition, users can better-manage file storage files right from within the SmarterMail webmail interface, thereby keeping disk space utilization to a minimum.

Create Strict Spam Settings

A very simple way to keep your mail server running smoothly is to limit the amount of email that actually comes into the mail server. A perfect example is spam messages: it’s a good idea to set up and manage strict anti-spam settings to prevent messages from even making it to the server. We have a KB article of Recommended Spam Settings that you can follow, and one of our power users and a forum Product Expert, Bruce Barnes, has an extensive PDF document outlining different spam settings and efficiencies with setting up various anti-spam measures.

Consider Setting Up an Inbound Gateway

Using an inbound gateway is a great way to offload some of the spam checks and help weed out unwanted email before it gets set for local delivery. While inbound gateways only offer SMTP spam checks (things like Commtouch, etc. can’t run on an inbound gateway), utilizing extensive checks and setting up a variety of RBLs and URIBLs can greatly limit the the amount of spam that gets to the primary mail server. From there, you can use Commtouch or other third-party add-ons to further eliminate spam. You can use SmarterMail as an inbound gateway, for free, and we have a knowledge base article that can help you set it up.

There you have it, a few more tips to help maximize the performance of your mail server. In Part Three, we’ll discuss some hardware changes and email client and mobile device settings that will help keep things running smoothly, so stay tuned!

Improving Disk I/O and Overall Performance for Your Mail Server, Part 1

While SmarterMail 11.x has a significant number of changes that greatly increase the performance and reliability of your mail server, there are still some configuration tweaks that mail admins can use to further increase performance. In this three part series (there’s a LOT to discuss) we’ll look at a few things you can do to increase the overall lperformance of your mail server beyond simply using SmarterMail. Part One will cover general server settings, Part Two will cover SmarterMail and Part Three will cover tweaks to email clients and devices as well as hardware changes to increase performance.

It doesn’t even matter if you’re running SmarterMail – any mail server will benefit from the various hardware, software and end-user/device mods mentioned. If you’re doing some of these already, then you’re ahead of the curve. However, read through and see if you can grab one or two more that allow you to squeeze the most out of your mail server performance.

Mail Server Settings

There are some changes that can be made to how your mail server is set up as well as some file system changes that can help increase performance. Below are a few ideas to get you started.

Use Robust Anti-virus

Use of good, robust antivirus software can help keep your mail server running smoothly by..well, scanning for, and removing, potential viruses that can come into your system via email. Antivirus software should be configured to scan messages as well as attachments, though care should be taken when designating where, and how often, some sections of your mail server are actively protected. See the next point, as an example. SmarterMail comes with ClamAV, an open-source anti-virus software, that can be configured when the mail server is set up, free of charge.

Limit the Resident Shield (or Similar) Component

Many anti-virus applications have a component that runs in the background that scans every single file that is copied to, saved to or even opened on the mail server. While these components allow system administrators to keep their mail servers virus-free, on heavily-used mail servers this can be a real drain on system resources. Therefore, it’s best to limit the resident shield component to only those locations that will most benefit by setting up exceptions in your anti-virus administration area.

Limit Where and What Is Scanned by A/V

In addition, you’ll only want to scan messages that come into the spool, and if possible, only scan writes and remove scans of disk reads. Disk i/o and CPU can be heavily taxed when scanning mailboxes over and over and over again. While you can run periodic checks on the server as a whole, maintaining the spool is the best way to ensure your mail server is virus-free as the only way a file can get to a mailbox is when it is written to the spool or to working/temp directories. Therefore, scanning writes only is a great way to keep your mail server virus free. Some may see this as a possible decrease in overall server security, but it will result in dramatic improvements to overall disk i/o and utilization.

Disable Pagefile

Opinions on the advantages of disabling the Windows pagefile vary: some say you should keep it “just in case” while others say that modern applications will never need it, so why keep it? Besides, most businesses run servers with more than enough RAM to compensate for any potential benefits that the pagefile represents. Therefore, you may as well disable your pagefile. The only time it’s beneficial is if you’re running a mail server with 4GB of RAM or less – and, to be honest, why would you do that?

Disable IIS Logging for the Webmail interface

Any Web hosting provider offering Windows hosting can attest to how IIS log files can grow..and grow…and grow. That’s great for customers’’ sites, but it’s not something you necessarily want to have happen to the SmarterMail Web interface. There’s enough reporting within SmarterMail for end users and administrators that seeing views, visits and hits isn’t necessary. Therefore, when you set up SmarterMail as a site in IIS (which is highly recommended in our system requirements), it’s a good idea to simply disable IIS logging for that site. Use the reports within SmarterMail versus using the IIS logs to generate reports.

A Few Other Items

There are a few other things that can be done to help optimize your mail server. These are pretty self-explanatory, so we’ll just bullet point them:

  • Disable hibernation or sleep for your server

  • Disable Windows Indexing as this reduces overall disk i/o and extends SSD life

  • Make sure write caching is enabled

  • Disable defrag for your spool, especially if you’re using a SSD

  • Defrag RAID arrays at least every couple of days, but do it off hours if possible

  • Do NOT use a realtime defragger – only use the one within Windows itself

  • Don’t defrag while backing up  your mail server

There you have it. A few tips to help maximize the performance of your mail server. In Part Two, we’ll discuss some settings for SmarterMail itself, though these tweaks can possibly be made to any mail server, so stay tuned!

Microsoft Exchange – Now Even More Expensive!

A large number of small businesses, enterprises, ISPs and other service providers use SmarterMail to provide communication services to over 15,000,000 end users worldwide. Some of these organizations chose SmarterMail over alternatives like Microsoft Exchange because of the high traffic volumes SmarterMail can handle without compromising the mail server’s stability.   Others like the the fact that SmarterMail’s overall cost is about 20% of Microsoft’s Exchange solution, even when including add-ons like antivirus and synchronization protocols. Starting December 1st, these customers will be even happier they chose SmarterMail!

That’s because it’s about to get even more expensive for companies using Microsoft Exchange since Microsoft is increasing their licensing costs again! This is, ostensibly, because Microsoft has finally realized that people are interacting with their products in new and different ways that they didn’t anticipate. Therefore, they’re essentially taxing you for those changes.

What’s happening is that Microsoft is increasing the client access license (CAL) costs for small business and enterprise customers as well as for service providers trying to provide Microsoft Exchange services to small businesses. With these increases, Microsoft is really making it difficult for service providers to provide online mail services as they continue to increase costs but also introduce very cost effective services themselves, such as Office365 and Outlook.com.

This is where SmarterMail really proves its overall value.

SmarterTools provides small businesses and service providers with the ability to have in-house mail services at a fraction of the cost of using Microsoft Exchange. Service providers can even create software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings that easily compete with Outlook.com and Office365, not only on features but on price as well. SmarterMail supports everything Microsoft Exchange does such as standard IMAP, POP, and SMTP as well as calendaring, contacts, tasks, notes. It also supports push technologies for mobile devices using Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, Exchange Web Services, SyncML, CalDAV and CardDAV. SmarterMail even supports live chat using industry-standard XMPP protocols that integrate perfectly with live chat clients like Adium, Pidgin and even Microsoft Live Messenger.

No matter if your users have an iPhone, Android tablet, Microsoft Surface, Microsoft Outlook 2013, Apple Mail or any number of other mobile devices or desktop clients you can provide them with the SAME EXACT experience as Microsoft Exchange users have.

We have a great section of our help documentation that provides more information about how SmarterMail compares with Microsoft Exchange, both from the User side as well as from the Administration side.

Your friendly neighborhood tax attorney says, don’t get burned by the Microsoft tax!

Welcome Windows 8, Microsoft Surface, and the Future

Microsoft is releasing Windows 8 this week, their latest desktop operating system, as well as the Microsof Surface, their first tablet computer. This will be closely followed with the next versions of Office, their mobile platform and even Xbox advancements and improvements. All of these releases signal a significant change for Microsoft, one that, as experts and analysts have discussed at great length, will either make or break Microsoft moving forward.

As a software developer that specializes in Windows technologies, we couldn’t be more excited for these changes. We pride ourselves on staying up-to-date with technology and in ensuring our products work across as many platforms as possible. We do this so that customers who stay current with their software, either by keeping their upgrade protection current or by reinstating expired versions, can reap the benefits of the work we put into each release.

So what did we have to do?

Windows 8 presented its fair share of issues. If changes to their primary desktop operating system wasn’t enough, we also have the new Surface tablet to deal with as well as the recent release of Windows Server 2012. Therefore, it wasn’t a simple matter of just making our standard adjustments and releasing new versions.

The first challenge was that the security levels in Windows Server 2012 are much higher than in previous Windows server versions. This fact meant we needed to focus more on ensuring our installations didn’t throw odd security exceptions for administrators. Therefore, we needed a bit more finesse and attention to how our products install and how they interact with both our installers and the operating system in general.

Another issue was dealing with changes in Internet Explorer 10. Microsoft changed their Web browser just as much as they changed their operating system. While it was easy to make all of our products work by running IE 10 in compatibility mode, this in not the best solution. Therefore, we had to make changes to our interface as well as the inner workings of all 3 products in order to run them natively in IE 10.

Another challenge was Exchange ActiveSync. Windows 8 includes an email client, a calendar application and contact system within the OS itself. Windows Mail provides a user with a few options, one of which is Exchange ActiveSync. We had to re-work our EAS implementation to accommodate this as we noticed that the default applications tended to continually request updates rather than request updates on a specific interval. This caused problems with connections and impacted server utilization.  We made changes so this is no longer an issue.

Finally, we take pride in ensuring that all of our products work “right out of the box.” That means that we include a default Web server with each installation so that customers can get their applications up and running as quickly as possible. Getting that default Web server to install and run correctly under both Server 2012 and Windows 8 presented a unique set of problems that required an extensive amount of time to revise and test. While we were at it, we updated the Web server to be more robust, stable and faster.  Keep in mind, the internal Web server is still not intended to be a production Web server like Internet Information Server (IIS), but we had to make the adjustments to make it easy for customers to begin using our products.

All in all, we’re always up for a challenge as it helps keep us on our toes. We are excited to see how Microsoft’s new operating systems, not to mention their foray into tablet computing, are received and how they will help keep Microsoft on the cutting edge of personal and business computing.

All that being said, what are your impressions with Microsoft’s products or our integration? We’re always interested to hear your opinions, so comment away..

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