The case of the slow Exchange 2003 Server – Lessons learned

Recently we received a case in support with an Exchange 2003 server where message delivery was slow and the Local Delivery queue was getting backed up. The Local Delivery queue was actually reaching in to the two thousand range and would fluctuate around that number for extended periods of time.

So we collected some performance data and all RPC latencies, disk latencies, CPU utilization and many of the other counters that we looked at did not show any signs of any problems. <Scratching Head>

This is actually a common problem that I have seen where the server is responding OK to clients and everything else appears to be operating normally except for the local delivery queue that continually rises. Even disabling any Anti-virus software on the server including any VSAPI versions does not resolve the problem. So we essentially have a case of a slow Exchange server with no signs of performance degradation using any normal troubleshooting methods.

The reason may not seem apparently obvious, but let me show you what this common problem is that I have seen in these situations. This not only applies to Exchange 2003, but it also applies to later versions of Exchange.

In some companies, they need to be able to journal messages to holding mailboxes either on the same server or a different server to maintain a copy of all messages that are sent in the organization for compliance purposes. These journaling mailboxes can get quite large and requires a special level of attention to ensure that the mailbox sizes and item counts for those mailboxes are maintained within reasonable levels. They kind of defy what our normal recommendations/guidance states because item counts in these folders can surely reach tens of thousands of items rather quickly and depends on the amount of mail that is sent within your organization.

Generally, the special level of attention needed that I mentioned earlier for journaling mailboxes are often overlooked. For each journaling mailbox, you need to have a process that will not only back up the items in these folders, but you need to also have some process that goes in and purges the data out of the mailbox once the backup has been taken. This purging process is necessary to maintain acceptable performance levels on an Exchange server. If these mailboxes are on their own server, user mailboxes are not normally affected. If these mailboxes are on the same server as user mailboxes, then this is where you might run in to some problems.

In this case that we received, we had found a journaling mailbox that had almost 1.5 million items in the mailbox that was 109GB in size as shown in the below screenshot. Wow!! That is a lot of items in this one mailbox.

huge journal mailbox-fixed

If you tried to logon to this mailbox using Outlook, the client would most likely hang for 5-10 minutes trying to query the amount of rows in the message table to generate the view that Outlook is trying to open. Once this view is created, you should now be able to view the items and then get back control of the Outlook client. You may think that you could simply go in and start removing/deleting items from this mailbox to start lowering the overall size of the mailbox. Try as you must, but you will most likely end up trying to do this for days since the performance impact of this amount of items in the mailbox will make this a very painful process. Making any modifications to the messages in these folders will cause the message tables to be updated which for this amount of items is simply going to take an exorbitant amount of time.

Our standard recommendation for Exchange mailboxes on Exchange 2003 servers is to have item counts under 5,000 items per folder. This guidance can be found in the Understanding the Performance Impact of High Item Counts and Restricted Views whitepaper here.

A simple troubleshooting step would be to dismount the mailbox store that this mailbox resides in to see if the message delivery queues go down. If all of the queues flush for all other mailbox stores, you have now found your problem.

If you absolutely need to get in to the mailbox to view some of the data, an Outlook client may not be the way to go to do some housecleaning. An alternative would be to use the MFCMAPI tool to view the contents of the mailbox. MFCMAPI will allow you to configure the tool to only allow a certain number of items to be returned at any given time. If you pull up MFCMAPI’s options screen, you can change the throttling section to limit the amount of rows that are displayed. If you were to put 4800 items in the highlighted section below, you would essentially limit the amount of rows or messages that are queried when the folder is opened to the number that you have entered. This will make viewing some of information a little bit easier, but still would be very cumbersome.


There are a couple of workarounds that you can do to clean this mailbox out.

  • If the data in the mailbox is already backed up, you could disable mail for that mailbox, run the cleanup agent and then create a new mailbox for the user. Note: the size of the database will still be huge and will increase backup and restore times even if you should recreate the mailbox. If you are finding that the backup times are taking a long time, you may want to think about using the dial tone database in the next suggestion or possibly moving the mailboxes on this store to a new database AFTER you have cleaned out the problem mailbox and then retiring the old database.
  • If the Mailbox Database houses only this one mailbox, you could simply dial tone that database starting with a fresh database. Instructions on how to do this can be found here
  • Purging the data out the mailbox using Mailbox Manager or some 3rd party tool may work, but keep in mind that you will most likely experience a performance problem on the server while the information is cleaned out of the mailbox and could take possibly hours to run

Long live that 109GB/1.5million item mailbox!!! :)

Another way to possibly find the high item count user is to use the PFDavAdmin tool to export items counts in users mailboxes. Steps on how to do this can be found here.

These cases are sometimes very tough to troubleshoot as any performance tool that you might try to use to determine where the problem might lie would not showing anything at the surface. Since the Exchange server is still responding to RPC calls in a timely fashion, any expensive calls running such as a query rows operation will surely slow things down. If you see that things are slow on your Exchange 2003 server and perfmon does not show anything glaring, one of the first things that I check is item counts in users mailboxes looking for some top high item count offenders. Exchange 2007 can have other reasons for this slowness, but that would be another blog post in and of itself.

So the moral of the story here is that should you have large mailboxes in your organization that are used as a journaling mailbox, a resource mailbox, or some type of automatic email processing application that might make use of Inbox rules to manipulate data in the mailbox, then you need to be absolutely sure that if the mailboxes are backed up or not, that the item counts in the folders of these mailboxes need to be kept to a reasonable count size or they will bring an Exchange server to crawling mode in trying to process email.

Just trying to pass on some of this not so obvious information…….