Overview of Exchange Server database architecture and Database Engine

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This article provides a general overview of the database architecture and database engine for Microsoft Exchange Server. The discussion includes information about the database components, maintenance of database consistency, possible types of database failures, and database utilities.
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Exchange Server uses fault-tolerant, transaction-based databases to store messages and directory information before it is applied to the database. For Exchange Server 5.5 Standard Edition, each database can grow to a maximum of 16 gigabytes (GB). For Exchange Server 5.5 Enterprise Edition, size is limited only by hardware.

If a power outage or other abnormal system failure occurs, Exchange Server uses transaction log files to reconstruct data that is already accepted by the server but not yet written to the database.

Database Components

The design of Exchange Server is based on standard database technology. The system relies on an embedded database engine that lays out the structure of the disk for Exchange Server and manages memory. The database engine technology is also used behind the scenes by other Windows applications, for example, Windows Internet Name Service (WINS) and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP).

Information Store

The information store, which is the key component for database management in Exchange Server, is actually two separate databases. The private information store database, Priv.edb, manages data in user mailboxes. The public information store, Pub.edb, manages data in public folders.

The information store works with the Messaging Application Programming Interface (MAPI) and the database engine to ensure that all user actions are recorded on the server's hard disk. For example, when a user saves a message in Microsoft Outlook, MAPI first calls the information store, which then calls the database engine, which then writes the changes to disk.

JET Database Engine

Exchange Server databases are based on the JET format, which uses log files to track and maintain information. Microsoft JET is an advanced 32-bit multithreaded database engine that combines speed and performance with other advanced features to enhance transaction-based processing capabilities.

The database engine caches the disk in memory by swapping 4-kilobyte (KB) pages of data in and out of memory. It updates the pages in memory and writes new or updated pages back to the disk. This makes the system more efficient because when requests come, the database engine buffers data in memory instead of constantly going to the disk.

In versions earlier than Exchange Server 5.5, the buffer cache is a fixed size. If more memory is needed, the administrator must manually change the buffer size.

In Exchange Server 5.5, dynamic buffer allocation allows the buffer cache to grow or shrink, depending on how much memory is available and on what resources are in use by other services that are running on the Microsoft Windows NT Server computer. If other services are not using memory, the Exchange Server database engine takes up as much memory as it needs. If other services need memory, the database engine gives up some memory by transferring pages to the hard disk and shrinking the size of the buffer.

When a user makes a request, the database engine loads the request into memory and marks the pages as "dirty" (a "dirty" page is a page that has been written with data and is still being held in memory). These dirty pages are later written to the information store databases on the disk.

Maintaining Database Consistency

Although caching in memory is the most efficient way to process data, one effect is that information on the disk is never completely up-to-date. Dirty pages in memory cause the databases to be flagged as inconsistent even though Exchange Server is running normally. Databases are truly in a consistent state only when all the dirty pages are successfully transferred to disk during a shutdown in which no errors occur.

What if you lose the contents of memory? For example, what if the server crashes before the data is written to disk and you are left with an inconsistent database? Exchange uses transaction log files to recover from this situation.

Transaction Log Files

Transaction log files keep a secure copy of volatile data that is in memory. If the system crashes, assuming the database is undamaged, the log files enable you to recover data up to the last committed transaction before the crash. (Note that it is recommended that you store the log files on a dedicated hard disk, so that the logs are not affected by possible disk failures that can corrupt the database.)

Exchange is a "transaction-based" messaging system, and the information store is a transactional database. A transaction is a set of changes to a database, such as inserts, deletes, and updates, in which the system follows four "ACID" invariants:
  • Atomic: Either all the operations occur or none of them occur.
  • Consistent: The database is transformed from one correct state to another.
  • Isolated: Changes are not visible until they are committed.
  • Durable: Committed transactions are preserved in the database even if the system crashes.
Following these invariants means that the database engine commits a transaction only when it can guarantee that the data is durable or persistent, protected from crashes or other failures. The database engine commits data only when that data has been transferred from memory to the transaction log file on the hard disk.

For example, to move a message from the Inbox folder to the Important folder, Exchange Server performs three operations:
  1. Deletes the message from the Inbox folder
  2. Inserts the message into the Important folder
  3. Updates the information about each folder to reflect the number of items and unread items
These operations are done in one transaction. The order of the operations does not matter. Exchange Server can safely delete the message from the Inbox folder because the deletion is committed only when the message is safely inserted into the Important folder. Even if the system crashes, Exchange Server never loses a message while moving it and never ends up with two copies of the message.

Logically, you might think of the data as moving from memory to the log file and then to the database on disk, but what actually happens is that data moves from memory to the database on disk. The log files are optimized for high-speed writes, so during normal operations, the database engine never actually reads the log files. It reads from the log files only if the information store service stops abnormally or crashes and the database engine needs to recover by replaying the log files.

The Checkpoint File

The database engine maintains a checkpoint file called Edb.chk for every log file sequence in order to keep track of the data that has not yet been written to the database file on disk. The checkpoint file is a pointer in the log sequence that indicates where in the log file the information store needs to start the recovery in case of a failure. The checkpoint file is essential for efficient recovery. Without it, the information store would start from the beginning of the oldest log file on the disk and check every page in every log file to determine whether it had already been written to the database--a time-consuming process, especially if all you want to do is make the database consistent.

The checkpoint file is located on the system disk. If you have to recover your system disk, this file is probably missing or in only an invalid version. But in most cases the checkpoint file takes care of itself.

Normal Logging

The following steps illustrate the process of "normal logging" where data is written to transaction log files:
  1. The user sends a message.
  2. MAPI calls the information store to tell it that the user is sending the message.
  3. The information store starts a transaction in the database engine and makes the corresponding changes to the data.
  4. The database engine records the transaction in memory by dirtying a new page in memory.
  5. Simultaneously, the database engine secures the transaction in the transaction log file and creates a log record. When the database engine reaches the end of a transaction log file, it rolls over and creates a new log file in sequence.
  6. The database engine writes the dirty page to the database file on the hard disk.
  7. The checkpoint file is updated.
Circular Logging

Exchange Server supports a feature called circular logging, which was implemented at a time when administrators were more concerned about server disk space than about data recovery.

Circular logging works in much the same way as normal logging except that the checkpoint file is essential for keeping track of information that is transferred to disk. During circular logging, as the checkpoint file advances to the next log file, old files are reused. When this happens, you cannot use the log files on disk in conjunction with your backup media to restore to the most recent committed transaction.

By default, circular logging is turned on in Exchange Server 5.5 to maintain a fixed size for log files and prevent buildup. When a log file reaches its 5-MB limit, the database engine deletes it and creates a new log file in the sequence. As a result, Exchange Server keeps only enough data on the hard disk to make the database consistent if a crash occurs.

It is recommended that you turn off circular logging on your Exchange Server computer. Circular logging may reduces the need for disk space, but it also eliminates your ability to recover up to the last committed transaction before a failure. You cannot replay log files and can only recover data up to the last full backup. Even if only one log file is overwritten, there is no way to recover the other 99 percent of the log data.

In effect, circular logging negates the advantages of a transaction-based system. Leaving circular logging turned on makes sense only if you do not need your data or if you have other means of data recovery. If you are concerned about log files' consuming your disk resources, it is better to clean them up by performing regular online backups. Backup automatically removes transaction log files when they are no longer needed.

Data Protection

It seems logical to think that database files are the most important aspect of data recovery. But in Exchange Server, transaction log files are more important because they contain information that is not in the database files. (This is why you should locate them on a stable server and place them on dedicated, high-performance disks, even if that means putting the database files on slower disks.)

Transaction log files keep a secure copy on disk of volatile data that is in memory so that the system can recover in the event of a failure. If the system crashes but the database is undamaged, as long as you have the log files, you can recover data up to the last committed transaction before the failure.

Transaction log files also make writing data more efficient because it is faster to update pages sequentially in a log file than to insert pages into the database. When a change occurs in the database, the database engine updates the data in memory. It synchronously writes a record of the transaction to the log file, telling it how to redo the transaction if the system fails. Then the database engine writes the data to the database on disk. To minimize disk input/output, the database engine transfers pages to disk in batches.

Each log file in a sequence can contain up to 5 MB of data. When a log file is full, it is renamed as a previous log file, and a new one is created with the Edb.log file name. Exchange Server associates each log file with a hexadecimal generation number. Because log files can have the same name, the database engine stamps the header in each file in the sequence with a unique signature so it can distinguish between different generations of log files.

Database Corruption

Exchange may experience a failure, such as a hardware failure, that requires the system to attempt to get back to a consistent state. Because there are different types of database corruption with differing symptoms, different tools and techniques are required to diagnose and fix problems.

There are two types of corruption:
  • Physical corruption
    At the lowest level, data can become physically corrupted on the disk. This is usually a hardware-related problem that always requires you to restore from backup.
  • Logical corruption
    Typical logical corruption occurs at the database level. For example, database engine failure can cause index entries to point to missing values. Logical corruption can also occur at the application level, in mailboxes, messages, folders, and attachments. For example, application-level corruption might cause incorrect reference counts, incorrect access control levels, a message header without a message body, and so on.

Physical Corruption

Physical corruption is serious because it can destroy data, and the only thing you can do is restore Exchange from backup. It is important that you detect physical corruption early and resolve the issues quickly.

Detecting Physical Corruption

Physical corruption in the information store generates the following errors in the application log of Event Viewer:
  • -1018 (JET_errReadVerifyFailure) The data read from disk is not the same as the data that was written to disk.
  • -1022 (JET_errDiskIO) The hardware, device driver, or operating system is returning errors.
  • -510 JET_errLogWriteFail The log files are out of disk space or there is a hardware failure with the log file disk.
Although Exchange typically displays a -1018 or -1022 error message when there is physical corruption, you can also detect physical corruption by performing online backups, which are Microsoft's recommended method for backing up data. Online backup also is the best way to detect corruption in a database file because it is the only process that systematically checks every single page in the database.

When you run an online backup, the Windows NT Backup software reads each 4-KB page in the database file, passes it to the database engine, and then writes it to tape. The database engine verifies that the checksum on each page is correct. If the checksum on the page does not match the checksum that the database engine calculates, there is physical database corruption on the hard disk and NT Backup logs an -1018 error.

Preventing Physical Corruption

The best way to prevent physical corruption is to outfit the server with quality hardware components and configure the system correctly. Make sure that you are not running file-level utilities, such as antivirus software, against database and log files on the computer that runs Exchange Server.

If you have reliable hardware, you may never see indications of physical corruption. If you do consistently run into -1018 errors, you probably have a hardware problem, possibly a bad disk or disk controller.

A word about write-back caching: Some write-back caching array controllers incorrectly return successful commits on transactions before the data has actually been secured to disk. The safest course is to turn off write-back caching unless the process has battery backup. If you do use write-back caching, avoid having a corrupted database by making sure that data is fully protected and that you have procedures to ensure that cached data is replayed to the right disks after a crash.

Recovering from Physical Corruption

The only way to recover from physical database corruption is to restore from the last good backup (if a backup ran without errors, it is good) and roll the log files forward to bring the system to a consistent and undamaged state. Repeated failure probably indicates a problem with the disk where the database is located.

There is really no safe way to repair physical corruption to the database. You can run the Eseutil.exe utility in repair mode to get the database functioning again, but this is not recommended because Eseutil simply deletes bad pages.

NOTE: If it is at all possible, avoid using Eseutil in repair mode (Eseutil /p). Eseutil, which comes with Exchange Server, is a last resort for repairing database damage when all else fails. In repair mode, it gets a broken database running again by simply deleting damaged pages. Eseutil should never be used to recover data. If you do run the Eseutil /p command, you must also run an offline defragmentation (Eseutil /d), and you must then run the Isinteg -test alltests -fix command to restore the database to a consistent state.

Logical Corruption

Logical corruption is much more difficult to diagnose and fix than physical corruption because logical corruption is unpredictable and is typically caused by software bugs. Usually it requires a problem to alert you to logical corruption. (Logical corruption is extremely rare in Exchange Server 5.5.)

Preventing Logical Corruption

Because logical corruption is so unpredictable, there is no foolproof way to prevent it. However, there are ways to reduce the risk:
  • Install the latest service pack for Microsoft Exchange Server version 5.5 as soon as possible. Service packs fix a number of known problems in Exchange Server 5.5.

    For additional information about service packs and how to obtain them, click the article numbers below to view the articles in the Microsoft Knowledge Base:
    241740 List of Bugs Fixed in Exchange Server 5.5 Service Pack 3
    254682 XADM: Exchange Server 5.5 Post-SP3 Database Engine Fixes
    191014 How to Obtain the Latest Exchange Server 5.5 Service Pack
  • Make sure that your Exchange Server computer is secure and that your configuration is not changed.
If you discover a problem and it persists after you follow through on these precautions, you may have found a new bug. If this is the case, notify Microsoft as soon as possible.
Repairing Logical Corruption

Logical corruption can occur in the information store or in the database engine. Because logical corruption can cause serious damage to data, do not ignore reports of errors.

You can use the Isinteg utility to check into problems in the information store or the Eseutil utility to check into problems in the database engine. Note that you should use these utilities only as a last resort after you have tried to restore the system from backup.

The Isinteg Utility

The Information Store Integrity Checker (Isinteg) finds and eliminates errors from the public and private information store databases. These errors may prevent the information store from starting or prevent users from logging on and receiving, opening, or deleting e-mail.

Isinteg is not intended for use as a part of normal information store maintenance; it is provided to assist in disaster recovery situations. For example, you can run Isinteg to correct information store counters in memory when they get out of sync after a system crash.

Because the Isinteg utility works at the logical schema level, it can recover data that Eseutil utility cannot recover. This is because data that is valid for the Eseutil utility at the physical schema level can be semantically invalid at the logical schema level. Isinteg records information in the application log in Event Viewer so that you can track the progress of the recovery.

The Isinteg utility performs two main tasks:
  • It patches the information store after a restore from an offline backup.
  • It tests and optionally fixes errors in the information store.
For additional information about troubleshooting the information store and Isinteg utility, click the article number below to view the article in the Microsoft Knowledge Base:
182081 XADM: Description of ISINTEG Utility

or see the Isinteg.rtf document on the Exchange Server 5.5 compact disc, in the Support\Utils directory.

The Eseutil Utility

The Eseutil utility examines the structure of the database tables and records and defragments, repairs, and checks the integrity of the information store and directory. Because running Eseutil in repair mode simply deletes damaged pages, use this utility only after you have tried to restore from backup.

For additional information about the Eseutil utility, click the article number below to view the article in the Microsoft Knowledge Base:
192185 XADM: How to Defragment with the ESEUTIL Utility (Eseutil.exe)
or see the Eseutil.rtf document on the Exchange 5.5 compact disc in the Support\Utils directory.

Data Backup

Because Exchange Server is transaction-based, avoid performing a file-level or offline backup of the database files on disk. The best way to ensure that you are preserving all data in the system, including transactions that have not yet been flushed to disk, is to perform regular online backups.

Online Backup

Online backup enables you to back up Exchange Server databases to your backup medium without shutting down the server. When Exchange Server is performing an online backup, all services, including the information store, continue to run normally. Pages continue to be updated in memory and transferred to the database files on disk, transactions are recorded in the log files, and the checkpoint file continues to move along.

Exchange uses a .pat (patch) file that keeps track of updated pages while the backup software is running, to make sure that pages that are modified during backup are also backed up. There are two .pat files, Priv.pat for the private information store and Pub.pat for the public information store.

When you perform an online backup, regularly check the application log in Event Viewer to make sure that backups are completing successfully.

Process of Online Backup

A backup program, for example Windows NT Backup (Ntbackup.exe), does the following during a full backup or a copy backup:
  1. Makes a copy of the database and backs it up to the tape.
  2. Adds a subset of pages to the .pat file, the pages that change after being copied to tape.
  3. Renames the current Edb.log file to Edbx.log, where x is the log file generation number in hexadecimal format, and creates a new log generation.
  4. In a full backup, backs up the .pat file and all log files after the checkpoint (except the new Edb.log) onto the tape. In a copy backup, backs up all log files before and after the checkpoint.
  5. In a full backup, deletes transaction log files that are older than the checkpoint. In a copy backup, does not delete any transaction log files.
A backup program does the following during an incremental backup or a differential backup:
  1. In an incremental backup, makes a copy of the log files and backs them up to the tape. In a differential backup, copies the database to tape.
  2. Adds a subset of pages to the .pat file, the pages that change after being copied to tape.
  3. Renames the current Edb.log file to Edbx.log and creates a new log generation.
  4. Backs up the .pat file and all log files before and after the checkpoint, including the new Edb.log, to tape.
  5. In an incremental backup, deletes transaction log files older than the checkpoint. In a differential backup, does not delete any log files.

Offline Backup

Try to avoid doing offline backups. In an online backup, the backup program manages files for you, but offline backup is a manual, labor-intensive process that is prone to human error. Additionally, in an offline backup, you cannot validate the checksum on each page of the database. Online backups are the single most valuable tool for detecting corruption and performing data recovery.

For additional information about backups, click the article numbers below to view the articles in the Microsoft Knowledge Base:
191357 XADM: Restoring a Single Database from Full Online Backups
179308 XADM: How To Verify Exchange Online Backups

Article ID: 271987 - Last Review: 12/05/2015 21:28:03 - Revision: 6.0

Microsoft Exchange Server 5.0 Standard Edition, Microsoft Exchange Server 5.5 Standard Edition

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