Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Tools of the Trade - Office 365 Tools for Hybrid Deployments and Migrations - Part 1

Other posts in this series:

An Introduction to the Tools of the Trade Series

Who wants to diagnose car troubles without any tools? Better yet, who wants to build a car without any tools? Not normal people, I can tell you that much! As much as I don't really consider myself to be a normal person, I do fall into the category of persons that would prefer to have the proper tools to do a job, especially if that job is to setup a hybrid deployment between an Office 365 enviroment and an On-Prem environment (or to troubleshoot ensuing integration problems).

Microsoft has a knack for building various tool sets around its products, and Office 365 and associated UC applications are no exception to that rule. As a matter of fact, this abundance of tools can start to get a little confusing, as some of the names are very similar, and functionality even seems to overlap a bit in some of the tools. 

This 3-part series will focus on tools for all aspects of an Office 365 Hybrid deployment or migration. The first post will focus on tools used for preparing your on-premises environment for integration with Office 365. The second post will be devoted completely to the Microsoft Azure Active Directory Sync Tool (DirSync). Finally, we will wrap up with the various tools that can be used to test different connectivity scenarios, and to troubleshoot issues that arise post-deployment.

Preparing for Office 365 Hybrid Deployments or Migrations

Did you ever invest a huge amount of time into completing a task, only to find out right as you were finishing that you could have done it in a fraction of the time, with a much simpler procedure? I think most of us have been there. This guy has for sure:

Sometimes it pays to use the right tools, or methodologies, from the beginning! A good starting point, though, is to know what those tools are. So, for all you Admins/Engineers out there that are getting ready to dive into Office 365 for your environment, especially if you are planning a hybrid environment or a complete migration, here are a couple tools that I think you will find incredibly useful at the beginning of your journey.

Office 365 Readiness Checks

Microsoft did us a solid by placing many of the tools that we would want right in the Office 365 Admin Center. The Office 365 Readiness Checks are a great set of checks that are installed and run from our client PC/laptop. To get to these tools, you will need to be logged into the Office 365 Admin Center, and then you can browse here: https://portal.microsoftonline.com/tools. You can then click on the top link titled, Check your Office 365 configuration with Office 365 health, readiness, and connectivity checks (By the way, you will also notice that there are other tools in this section of the portal that we will discuss in a post later in the series).

You will then be guided through the process of conducting these checks. These checks are great to run before your deployment, before launching new services in a deployment, and between each phase of a phased deployment. Your system requirements are fairly easy to meet: you need to have a client OS that is at least Windows 7 (64-bit), and .NET Framework 3.5 needs to be installed. Keep in mind that these checks will be investigating different aspects of your environment, as well as your Office setup, and diagnosing its readiness for integration with Office 365. This means that you will want to be running these checks using an account that has admin-level permissions within the environment.

IdFix DirSync Remediation Tool

Next up on the list, and the only other tool I am discussing concerning preparation for Office 365 integration, is the IdFix DirSync Remediation Tool. The name almost kind of reminds you of Microsoft's Fixit tool, doesn't it? At any rate, this tool is very important for saving you time that you may be spending trying to remediate errors that you could potentially run into when running the DirSync tool (discussed in the next post in this series).

This tool is a download, and it requires at least Windows Server 2008 R2 on the server side, or Windows 7 (64-bit) on the client-side. It's purpose is to ensure that your Active Directory environment is in a ready state for running directory synchronization to Office 365. The tool does a discovery within your AD environment, and then identifies areas of remediation that are required before you attempt to run the DirSync tool. This could potentially save you a bunch of time trying to track down the root cause of errors that you would face in the DirSync tool.

Let's consider the example of a company that has an on-prem Exchange and Lync setup, and uses the public domain 'contoso.org' for their email addresses. They they go and setup Office 365 with a domain called 'contoso.com', and they are using that domain for Exchange Online and Lync Online (excuse me, Skype for Business Online). When they attempt to run the DirSync tool between environments, they are going to run into errors because of the domain mismatch. This is where the IdFix tool can save them the headache, by identifying the incompatibilities ahead of time, and pointing the admin/engineer in the right direction to get the on-prem environment properly prepared.


Well, that wraps it up for this post. While there are other tools out there that may assist in the preparation phase of a deployment, these two should get you started by ensuring that your environment is well prepared and compatible with your Office 365 environment. In our next post, we will dig into the DirSync tool a bit, going over some of the system and environment requirements for running the tool, and discussing a few key points about it. We will conclude the series after our discussion on DirSync by going over the various tools that can help in testing and troubleshooting client connectivity scenarios.

Stay Techy, my friends!

Friday, April 24, 2015

The "MCSE: Communication" Certification Journey: Part 3

Other articles in this series:

2Certs, 1 Stone

Well, this week I am finally able to wrap up this three-part miniseries on my journey to the MCSE: Communication. Consequently, in the process of pursuing my MCSE: Communication, I also achieved the MCSA: Office 365 simultaneously upon finishing my last exam on Wednesday, the 70-347 exam.

While I have covered the exam path options pretty thoroughly in the previous posts of this series, I will do a brief recap. On Microsoft's site, they show that the first two exams in this path are 70-346 and 70-347, which are both Office 365 exams (and as such, cover Lync Online). Upon completing both of these exams, you would have achieved your MCSA: Office 365 before achieving the MCSE: Communication, which would have been a product of the final two exams: 70-336 and 70-337. However, I went backwards, obtaining the Lync-specific exams first. Once I had these, I didn't posses any particular cert, and had to pursue the Office 365 ones next. This is how I ended up getting both certs upon completing that one last exam. As mentioned in the previous articles, MCITP holders should also be able to pursue the 70-417 in addition to the Lync exams, in leui of the MCSA: Office 365 exams. My personal recommendation, especially if you are interested in UC and the growing presence of Office 365, is to go the route that I ended up opting for.

70-347 Exam Prep Tips

So, up to this point, I have given exam tips and preparation suggestions for the other 3 exams. The last one, 70-347, won't differ too much from my suggestion for 70-346 here. As with 70-346, make sure you hit up the pertinent Technet and Office 365 Support sites thoroughly, and continue to reference them throughout testing and use of other materials, like books.

Once again, THE MOST helpful thing I can recommend to prepare for this exam is to purchase an Office 365 Business Essentials license at a minimum ($6/month for a single-user license), and get as intimately familiar with the Office 365 Admin Center as you can. In the case of 70-347, don't only get familiar with the Office 365 Admin Center, but also get very familiar with each admin center for each product, like the admin centers for Lync Online and Exchange Online. Really spend a lot of time exploring all your options within SharePoint Online as well. All of this is critical to achieving familiarity with the product, and understanding what is being asked of you on exam questions.

Also, I am going to strongly recommend the 70-347 CBTNugget series: https://www.cbtnuggets.com/it-training/microsoft-office-365-70-347. This series is only 4 hours total, and each nugget is very short (usually only a few minutes). It is a great way to focus in on certain aspects, and really get to know them and the procedures.

Finally the Microsoft Press Store Exam Ref for this exam is not due out until September of 2015, so if you are testing before them, sorry. If you are discovering this blog after that, though, please consider looking into this book as another good tool for exam preparation: http://www.amazon.com/Exam-70-347-Enabling-Office-Services/dp/1509300678/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1429890800&sr=8-4&keywords=70-347.

That's all folks!

I am glad to have all that studying and testing behind me, and thrilled to now be a member of the MCSE: Communication community (as well as the MCSA: Office 365 community). I hope this series has been helpful to those of you wishing to pursue the same certifications, and I wish you the best of luck on your testing. The weekend is upon us, and I am ready to celebrate!

Stay techy, my frieds!

Friday, April 17, 2015

The "MCSE: Communication" Certification Journey: Part 2

Other articles in this series:

Exam 70-346: CHECK

So, I passed the 70-346 exam yesterday, and heavy studying/preparation is already under way for 70-347 (hoping to follow up with that success very soon).

Alright, calm down there R2D2; let's wait until we actually get the MCSE: Communications certification upon successful completion of the next exam! For those of you that are unfamiliar with the exam requirements for the MCSE: Communications, please review the first blog post in this three-part series. In that post, I mentioned that I have already completed the Lync Server exams: 70-336 and 70-337. Now, with 70-346 under my belt, that leaves only 70-347.

The full title of 70-346 is "Managing Office 365 Identities and Requirements". For the full list of objectives and topics covered by this exam, check out Microsoft's official page for this exam: https://www.microsoft.com/learning/en-us/exam-70-346.aspx.

Exam Preparation Tips

I would love to point you in the direction of one of the lovely Microsoft Press Store "Exam Ref" books for 70346, but unfortunately, there is not currently one out. HOWEVER, it is in the works, and is available for pre-order on Amazon, if you are planning on taking the exam any time after July 10, 2015 (as currently displayed on the product page on Amazon). Here is the link for the book in case you want to pre-order: http://www.amazon.com/70-346-Managing-Office-Identities-Requirements/dp/150930066X/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1429281084&sr=8-5&keywords=70-346.

Now, despite a good exam reference book not being available quite yet, there are still some very effective tools for getting well prepared for this exam. First, the exam details page that I linked to above lists out all the primary objective areas to clue you into the topics that would be good to get very familiar with. From that point, Technet and the https://support.office.microsoft.com/ offer extremely thorough details on everything you could possibly need to know for the exam. Granted, it is very difficult to go through and intimately learn all pertinent data directly from Technet documentation, but that is truly the ultimate source of knowledge for this material.

In addition to pouring over documentation as mentioned above, the thing that I found EXTREMELY helpful at exam time was real experience, both within the Office 365 Admin Center, and with spinning up virtual test servers and testing various Directory Synchronization scenarios and Powershell cmdlets. To accomplish this, I signed up for an Office 365 Business Essentials account a few months back at the month-to-month rate for a single license ($6/month). This is very affordable, and will let you test most scenarios that the exam might throw your way. I became as familiar as I could with all the different areas within the Office 365 Admin Center, especially in regards to provisioning users, since the title of the exam suggests that that is the focus.

Now, as far as testing remote management of the Office 365 environment, and synchronizing an on-prem environment with the Azure-based environment, this obviously requires a lab of some sort. I STRONGLY recommend doing this for preparation. However, I understand that costs can add up for such a lab. In my case, I did my testing on one or two virtual machines that I spun up in the Rackspace Managed Cloud. This can be fairly affordable for exam preparation if you simply spin up the servers for the timeframe you need, and then delete them once done. Billing is hourly, so you are only billed from the moment the servers are spun up to the moment they are deleted and no longer using up space on the host servers. While I prefer Rackspace (Disclaimer: my employment with this company may or may not make me biased), you could set up a similar lab environment with your Cloud provider of choice. Check out my earlier blog to read about what my small lab environment looked like in the Cloud: http://blog.msucguy.com/2015/04/office-365-directory-synchronization.html.

Now, I will NOT go into detail about specifics of what you might find on the exam, obviously, but there are a couple helpful points that I can offer. First, just like with Exchange, Lync/Skype for Business, and various other Microsoft platforms, Microsoft offers a number of very helpful tools for anything from diagnostics to preparing your environment. Some of the tools that can be used for your on-prem Lync or Exchange environments can even be used to test out your Office 365 environment. Take the time to get to learn all the available diagnostic/connectivity/preparation tools available for Office 365, and try to test some out if possible for a more solidified understanding of their usefulness.

The second, and final, point that I will make in getting ready for this exam is one that you may have heard echoed for many of Microsoft's exams over the last couple years. Powershell has become hugely integrated with a large number of Microsoft Server applications and operating systems, and Office 365 is no exception. Take the time to learn how to manage your Office 365 environment, resources, and users in both the available Office 365 Administrative Center, and in remote Powershell cmdlets. If nothing else, this will be extremely useful in your day-to-day management of your own Office 365 environment.

Well, that's all I've got for 70-346. If you plan on taking this exam, the best of luck to you! You will hear from me soon on my experiences with 70-347, hopefully within the context of two new certifications!

Stay techy, my friends!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Office 365 Directory Synchronization Lab "Gotcha"

The Plot

So, your intrigue has gotten the better of you, and you have decided to start exploring the awesome world of Office 365 (or your boss is making you for your job). You proceed to set up a small account for testing and investigation, maybe using the Business Essentials license. And hey, after tinkering around inside the Office 365 Admin Center and getting better oriented with the layout and setup, you decide it is time to take this party to the next level: exploring the full power of Directory Synchronization with SSO! Let's take a breather from the excitement, and make sure we have a few things in order first in order to make this work. 
  • Make sure we have a public domain name purchased and set up within Office 365 (this domain name will match the Active Directory domain that we will set up in our "on-prem" lab environment. This link will get you started with properly verifying your domain ownership within Office 365, and then adding it in: https://support.office.com/en-in/article/Verify-your-domain-in-Office-365-6383f56d-3d09-4dcb-9b41-b5f5a5efd611?ui=en-US&rs=en-IN&ad=IN
  • Set up a single server as a Domain Controller in its own domain (single-forest, single domain). Ensure the Active Directory domain used matches the public domain you have setup in Office 365. For lab purposes, I would recommend setting this up in a public Cloud environment to remove any networking restriction road blocks that may be in place within your organization's internal network. Personally, I prefer the ease of use and mind-blowing fanatical support that you get with the Rackspace Managed Cloud: http://www.rackspace.com/cloud (Disclaimer: my opinion of Cloud providers may or may not be influenced by the fact that I also work for Rackspace Hosting; I'll leave that to you to decide.)
  • Once your AD DS is properly installed and configured, you then need to install and configure Active Directory Federation Services through the Roles and Features wizard: http://blogs.technet.com/b/rmilne/archive/2014/04/28/how-to-install-adfs-2012-r2-for-office-365.aspx. Please note that this will require an SSL certificate to be installed, and to accomplish this, I simply installed an enterprise Certificate Authority through the Roles and Features wizard on the same Domain Controller that I already had in place (This is not a configuration that I would recommend at all in production, but it works just fine for a lab). Just a recap, this server now has AD DS, AD FS, and an AD CA installed on it. Again, only pursue this configuration in a lab environment, NOT production.
  • Finally, create a few users in Active Directory Users and Computers. This will simply be to showcase that DirSync worked.
Now that we have prepped our lab (assuming no firewalls or networking roadblocks are in the way), it  is time to prep Office 365 for Directory Synchronization with Password Sync. We can then actually run the sync from our lab DC.

Rather than go into detail on how to configure Office 365 for Directory Synchronization, and then subsequently how to run the tool in your lab environment, I am going to provide you a link to a well-written and documented (images) process for doing this. Why? I hate re-inventing the wheel, and that is not the aim of my article, exactly. So here you go: https://www.cogmotive.com/blog/migration/setting-up-dirsync-between-active-directory-and-office-365.

So what is the point of this post, then?

Fair question! Since I have gone to the trouble of providing all the detail above for prepping a lab environment, and then didn't follow up with detailed instructions on the actual Directory Synchronization process, it is understandable that you may be wondering what the point of all this is. Here it is: it is not recommended to install the Azure Active Directory Sync tool on an Active Directory Domain Controller, and doing so will likely present you with the an error towards the end of the wizard. Since my lab is based on a single server that includes the AD DS role, it is clearly not following recommended guidelines, and thus you will run into the following error: "Constraint Violation Error." Super helpful, right? Yeah, that's what I thought. Well, after a little bit of digging, I found the answer in the MSDN forums. If you installed the Azure Active Directory Sync tool on a Domain Controller, at the end of the wizard, uncheck the "Start Configuration Wizard Now" checkbox before finishing. THEN, log off of the DC, and log back in, starting up the Configuration wizard after your re-log. 

Wasn't that super intuitive? At any rate, I had not unchecked the box, and was thus receiving the error. No problem. Just close the Configuration Wizard, re-log, and then open it again, and no more "Constraint Violation Error" message! To make sure credit is given where it is due, I found the solution posted by Susie Long of MSFT here: https://social.msdn.microsoft.com/Forums/en-US/1f104bc6-04cd-408d-9eab-d051a402d906/windows-azure-active-directory-sync-setup?forum=WindowsAzureAD.

Stay techy, my friends!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Lync 2013 and OWA Integration Troubles

Gratuitous Intro to the Situation

Ok, so we'll keep this short(ish) and sweet. Integrating your Lync Server 2013 on-premise environment with your Exchange Server 2013 on-premise environment is a fairly common goal within companies that wish to leverage even a few of the awesome "unified communication" features that come with the grouping of these awesome applications. Moreover, there are exactly 12,073,258 (Disclaimer: the preceding statistic is a completely bogus number) different blog posts and forum entries on the web detailing how to go about integrating Lync with Exchange. So, this issue assumes that you already have integration setup and verified to be working. At least partly working...

The Actual Problem

Some sporadic, not all, Exchange mailboxes were unable to login to Outook Web App (OWA) and successfully sign-in to Lync from within OWA. If the user is enabled for both Lync and Exchange using the same SIP domain (Example: @msucguy.com), they should be able to log into OWA, and sign in to Lync from within OWA, at which point they can initiate chats from their web browser. Below is what one would expect to see in such a scenario:

However, for the sporadic few users that were not seeing this, they would instead see the below message once logged into OWA:

The notorious, "There's a problem with IM. Please try again later. If the problem continues, contact your helpdesk" error. 

How to Troubleshoot

There are a few things to consider when trying to get to the bottom of this pesky error. Let's dig into a few of the key things to check for.
  1. While this post assumed that the Lync integration with Exchange had already been setup successfully (partially, anyway), let's take a step back and forget about the fact that we already know some users are successfully logging into Lync via OWA. If we know of no instances of users accessing IM within OWA, we want to ensure that Lync does in fact trust Exchange (and OWA). To do this, let's open up the ever-so-handy-dandy Lync Server Management Shell. Once in the Lync Server Management Shell, we will run the cmdlet "Get-CsTrustedApplicationPool". We should see the below results, listing out your OWA URL up top, specifying your Lync Pool as the Registrar, and listing "urn:application:outlookwebaccess" in the Application field:
  2. Next, with the Lync Server Management Shell still opened, we will run the "Get-CsTrustedApplication" cmdlet. The results should look like below. Note the port number 5199. If you have a pretty tightly locked down network internally, you will want to make sure that your Lync Front End servers can reach your OWA servers on port 5199.
    Ok, I realize that most of this image is "whited out", but you get the picture. Make sure your FQDNs are where the white out sections are, and make sure "outlookwebaccess" shows up where it should.
  3. Now that we have verified that our Lync environment is properly set up to trust the Exchange servers, let's go back to assuming that we now know for a fact that IM works for some users within OWA. If we know that it does work, at least for some, then we need to verify that there is not, in fact, problem with "IM" (a.k.a., Lync Server 2013). Of course we can verify this by checking to make sure that we are able to log into our desktop or mobile clients with Lync, but this does not rule out that there is an isolated problem in the environment. To make sure all is well, quickly log into the Lync Server Control Panel (LSCP), and browse to the "Topology" tab. On this tab, ensure that all your relevant servers show up with a green check mark for their Replication Status, and then ensure that all servers report a healthy status for their services. We will assume that all is well on these checks, and that the environment is perfectly healthy.

The Resolution (at least in my case)

Alright, well now that we verified that Lync is in fact set up to trust Exchange and OWA properly, that the Lync environment is not having any sort of issues, and that IM within OWA does actually work for most users, we need to do some checking on the individual user level. A topical inspection of the user's settings within Exchange and Lync didn't reveal anything that stood out right away, so we decided to do a side-by-side comparison of a user that was experiencing the issue versus a user that was not experiencing the issue by looking at their properties within ADSIEdit. ADSIEdit allows us to get a really granular view of all possible attributes that can be set for a user within the realms of Active Directory-integrated applications, like Lync and Exchange.

Sure enough, there was a single attribute that did not get set for the accounts experiencing the problem: msExchOWAPolicy. And wouldn't you know, that attribute sounds like it just may have something to do with the problem we are experiencing. The value for the problematic user was set to "<not set>", when it should have been set to the Default policy, like so:

Technet does a dandy little job explaining how a default policy is created when Exchange is installed, and that this policy has ALL options enabled by default, BUT this default is not set on any mailboxes by default: https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dd335142%28v=exchg.150%29.aspx. So, if your Exchange admins/engineers don't have a provisioning process that sets this value for each user, or if the process allows for a user or two to slip through the cracks, you might just find yourself with a handful of users that magically can not sign into IM within OWA.

Well, I supposed I completely blew the attempt to keep this short and sweet, but I hope this is helpful for someone out there, and that they don't have to spend too long trying to track the problem down.

Stay techy, my friends!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Rapidly Growing RTCAB Database Log File

​I wanted to share a little helpful info on an issue I have run into a few times with recent Lync Server 2013 Enterprise Edition deployments​​​​ regarding the backend databases that are stored on SQL Server. In particular, the 'rtcab' database is the source of the problem that I am covering in this post. Let me be more specific: the rtcab database log file is the source of the problem. Namely, for reasons that this post will not really explore or dive into, this log file can tend to grow very fast and very large.

For anyone that has every manually created SQL Server Mirroring, they understand how troublesome a Mirroring configuration can be to implement, and how frustrating it can be to troubleshoot. On the flip side of that coin, those same people truly understand how freakin' awesome it is that the Lync Server 2013 Topology Builder will completely take care of the Mirroring setup  on its own if the proper permissions are in place, including a Witness! With such beautiful automation in place regarding the backend SQL configurations, it can be easy to forget about the the SQL portion of the Lync Server 2013 environment all together; you almost have a false sense of "set it and forget it".

Obviously, it would be incredibly foolish to purposefully forget about the SQL environment after Lync installation, but let's just say in the excitement of finally getting all the pieces successfully deployed and having a functional Lync deployment, you forget to go back onto the primarly SQL server in the Mirror (or just the SQL server, if Mirroring was not set up), and set up the necessary maintenance plans. Why would you need maintenance plans for backups if you have a real-time copy of the databases on your Mirror at all times, you ask? Well, Mirroring requires that the databases have a Full recovery model, which means that their logs will continue to grow, without being truncated, until they cannot grow any longer.

Going back to our hypothetical, you have this successfully setup Lync environment, and a pristine SQL Mirror setup, and life is good. Then suddenly life is not so good when suddenly your address book in Lync is not displaying all the results that it should. Eventually you discover that the Address Book is either corrupt or not functioning propery, and you discover that the drive on your SQL server that contains the database log files is full. Why is it full? Well, that pesky rtcab database gets a LOT of transactions and updates, for some reason, and that transaction log has grown to a few hundred GB in size! None of the other logs may have grown much at all, but that rtcab log is just ornery.

So, first thing to do is realize that we should have made a maintenance plan within SQL Server Management Studio from the get-go to keep our databases regularly backed up with a Full backup, and then a second maintenance plan to backup all the Transactions Logs, which would in turn truncate the logs. However, in many cases, an hourly transaction log backup might be necessary for keeping the rtcab log from growing, Alright, so we are a bit lit, but we get those maintenance plans in place, and try to manually backup the database and transaction log, which is successful, but we notice that the transaction log is still several hundred GB in size. So, we try to shrink the rtcab log file, and while it seems like the command completed successfully in the Management Console, the file is STILL the same size.

Next, we turn to good ole' Google to find out why the Shrink command is not working on the log file (make sure when you try to shrink the log file in the Management console that you choose "Log" from the drop-down instead of leaving it on the default of "Data"). Google isn't much help because all that every DBA and their mother wants to do is scream about why "you should never Shrink the database; best practice is to have full backups and transactional log backups running on a schedule." This is the point where we are thinking, "Yeah, thanks for that overwhelming helpfulness, DBAs. We are aware of what Best Practice is, and will be using that moving forward, but how in the world do I free up the hundreds of GBs on my drive in the mean time?"

So, now that I have made you read through all this to find out why that rtcab log file won't shrink after using the Management Console, or using the DBCC SHRINKFILE command, the answer is simple: because the log is still being utilized in the Mirroing relationship, it cannot be shrunk. You must go into the Properties of the database, go to the Mirroring tab, and then Pause the mirror. This leaves the Mirror in tact for the database, but shows a status of Suspended. Once this is done, you should be able to run the Shrink operation, and the file should instantly shrink down to almost nothing. BOOM! You now have hundreds of GBs of space back. And as long as your Maintenance Plans are setup properly with a retention period (use a Maintenance Cleanup Task), you will keep your space back! Oh, almost forgot, don't forget to go back in to the Mirroring tab and Resume the Mirror!

Stay techy, my friends!

The "MCSE: Communication" Certification Journey: Part 1

Other posts in this series:

Hello fellow Microsoft UC enthusiasts! This post is my first official blog post on my new O365-based blog for all things Microsoft UC (though it will be primarily focused on Lync and Skype for Business). While trying to decide on the topic that I should write about for my maiden voyage post, I came to the conclusion that the most fitting topic for a first post would be a discussion on the certification process for the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE): Communications certification. As I am in the process of obtaining this cert (half-way there), I will discuss my personal experiences thus far, what has helped me prepare for exams, and what the road ahead looks like.
For those that are not aware, the MCSE: Communications cert ​is the professional-level certification that Microsoft offers to distinguish an individual that is ​proven in their knowledge and abilities in regards to Lync Server 2013. Many organizations that are looking to hire for Lync Engineers or senior Lync positions often would like to see this certification on your resume. The official page for this certification ​​​is here, and it very simply outlines the exams that are required to earn the certification, as well as courses and other optional training that will help prepare you..
The first two exams that are listed, 70-346 and 70-347, are more specific to ​setting up and managing various services within Office 365. The last two exams, however, are actually specific to Lync Server 2013: 70-336 and 70-337. As my role is currently a Lync Engineer, I started with 70-336 and 70-337, and will be following up with 70-346 and 70-347.
Before I get into my experiences thus far, however, I wanted to point out that you can achieve this exam by only taking three exams if you are already possess one of the following certifications, as listed on the link above:

  • MCSA: Windows Server 2008
  • MCITP: Virtualization Administrator on Windows Server 2008 R2
  • MCITP: Enterprise Messaging Administrator 2010
  • MCITP: Lync Server Administrator 2010
  • MCITP: SharePoint Administrator 2010
  • MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Administrator on Windows 7

While the website does not make mention of it, the MCITP: Enterprise Administrator is also qualified, and I know this because that is what I currently possess, and had to look deeper into it. Essentially, if you have one of the above certifications already, you can take 70-417, "Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012​" in place of the O365 exams. While this may be a tempting route to go because it is one exam versus two, Microsoft does not really treat 70-417 like one exam in terms of the exam structure or the material needed to study. The exam actually is being taken in place of 70-410, 70-411, and 70-412, and the study recommendations and guides pretty much mirror all three of those tests, except that they get combined onto one test. If you do the math, that is a LOT of preparation and studying for the one exam, whereas taking 70-346 and 70-347 individually will be a much a much lighter load for each test. 

Personally, I was going to go down the 70-417 road at first, but after doing the above analysis, I decided it would be not only easier to go the O365 exam route, but learning all the ins-and-outs about O365 would actually be HUGELY beneficial as a Lync Engineer. Let's face it, more and more customers are moving into the cloud, or opting for hybrid environments, and being able to intelligently discuss those options with a customer, in addition to the usual On-Prem options, will be incredibly valueable in the future.

Now, as I mentioned, I have already completed 70-336 and 70-337. Ok, I take that back, I did not mention that; I merely stated that I started with them, so to clarify, I did indeed pass them. Ok, I'll  be honest, I passed 70-336 on the second try! At any rate, these exams are particularly difficult to prepare for, because as you will find, there are far fewer study guides in existence for them, and there are precisely ZERO practice exams in existence. Nope, not even from Transcender or MeasureUp. Super helpful, right?

No need to despair, though. While the preparation options are fewer for these exams, there are still some good options. Of course, there is always the Microsoft Official Courses for each exam, though it is not always easy to convince the boss to send you to training for a couple grand a pop, and who wants to shell out that money on their own? Not this guy! There are two main resources that I used, and they were immensely helpful and educational in relation to these exams.

The first one was Chris Ward's CBT Nugget series on Lync. He has two series, one for each exam. With a "Nugget" being an individual video on a single topic within the exam, you can pace yourself nicely, and take in some good material, without getting overloaded and bored to death. You can watch all the Nuggets you want on a 7-day trial, and then you can go month-to-month after that for only $99. I paid for a month, and it was well worth it. Check it out: https://www.cbtnuggets.com/it-training/microsoft-lync-server-2013-70-336

The second tool I used a handy book called "Microsoft Lync Server 2013 Unleashed" by Alex Lewis, Tom Pacyk, David Ross, and Randy Wintle. Some tech books can be very dry and difficult to read, and despite that fact that the book is still a very technical book, I found it to be an easy read. It explained things very well, while still digging pretty deep into various topics. I would venture to say that there probably wasn't much on the exams at all, if anything, that was not covered in this book. For roughly $35 new on Amazon, it was totally worth the money: http://www.amazon.com/Microsoft-Lync-Server-2013-Unleashed/dp/0672336154/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1428096680&sr=8-1&keywords=microsoft+lync+server+2013+unleashed.

Well, I realize this has been kind of a long post, but I am thrilled to be launching this blog, and I can't wait to start digging into some more technical topics very soon! I will also be following up on this post as I make progress through 70-346 and 70-347.

Stay techy, my friends!