Thoughts on “Automatic E-mail Server Notifications in Exchange 2010″

In an article on MsExchange.org, Markus Klein elaborates on the reasons behind the changed message delivery notification (MDN) behavior in Exchange 2010. Examples of MDNs are read or delivery receipts or out of office messages. Issues may arise with MDNs because Exchange 2010 (and Exchange 2007) will use a blank sender address and not all e-mail systems can cope with that, making Exchange compliant with the related RFC. The article ends with workarounds to mitigate the issue. Here are my thoughts on that article.

The article refers to RFC2298, dated March 1998. However, MDNs are defined by RFC3798 of May 2004, which obsoletes RFC2298. Nevertheless, like Klein indicated, both RFCs dictate the following:

The envelope sender address (i.e., SMTP MAIL FROM) of the MDN MUST be null (<>), specifying that no Delivery Status Notification messages or other messages indicating successful or unsuccessful delivery are to be sent in response to an MDN.

The idea behind using a blank sender address is that e-mail systems will not return DSN messages, e.g. mailbox unavailable or disk quota exceeded, as a reply to an MDN, preventing potential message loops. However, there are some side-effects as not all e-mail systems or messaging hygiene products are RFC compliant. For example, the default setting of ForeFront Protection 2010 for Exchange is to block messages with an empty sender address. These products may simply block those messages, since blank senders could potentially be an indicator for spoofed messages. When you suspect such product to be causing the issue, check and reconfigure when appropriate.

The author continues the article by describing how to configure and troubleshoot routing of MDNs to the internet. The author shows how to enable and inspect the receive connector logs. Instead, I suggest monitoring the send connector logs when troubleshooting MDN delivery. Inspecting the send connector log files, you can get a clue on why MDN delivery fails and will see if Exchange is trying to deliver the MDN at all, and if so, the reason why. To enable send connector logging use the following cmdlet:

Set-SendConnector <ConnectorID> -ProtocolLoggingLevel verbose

The log files are generated in the “V14\TransportRoles\Logs\ProtocolLog\SmtpSend” folder below the location where you installed Exchange.

Finally, the author suggests the following workarounds:

  1. Use Outlook “out of office”
  2. Switch Relay Provider
  3. Implement Exchange Server Edge Roles

The first workaround is a less preferable option, as it’s configured per-user as a rule and rules, stored in the user’s mailbox, can’t easily be managed. When using the OOF option, administrators can, using the Get-MailboxAutoReplyConfiguration and Set-MailboxAutoReplyConfiguration cmdlets. Also, it makes the end user responsible for working around the issue. Meanwhile, despite this instruction, you can still expect lots of users to keep using the OOF function.

The second and third suggestions are non-options, since they don’t eliminate the issue and will only add a product and an extra hop to the e-mail route. Yes, you can switch to using a different SMTP relay or implement an Exchange Edge server which will accept MDN messages with an empty sender address. However, that may not be the final destination of the e-mail message, so the (unpredictable) MDN delivery issue remains. Nobody can guarantee that the e-mail system or message hygiene appliance at the recipient blocks blocks your OOF message with an empty sender address. You can read that between the lines of the PSS statement the author quotes as well:

The Exchange edge server will not reject the OOF message as the edge server will be incorporated into the Exchange organization. The HUB server will transfer the OOF messages in the address of OOF mailbox to the edge server and the edge server will then send the messages with empty return path e.g. blank sender, MAIL FROM: <> “null” to Internet.

Now, when the issue lies outside of your Exchange organization, e.g. the hosted message hygiene service or destination mail system, you might be left with no other option than to violate RFC3798 by adding a sender address. In Exchange this isn’t possible, but other e-mail gateways could help you with that. Note that when using a hosted message hygiene service or appliance for outbound messages, using a non-blank sender might be less of an issue since you’re offloading the delivery, compared to trying to deliver the message to the destination mail system yourself.

However, when opting to resort to these measures, I’d strongly suggest reconsidering sending out of office messages (or MDNs in general) outside of your Exchange organization, regardless of the sender. Spammers love confirmed e-mail addresses, so treasure your business e-mail addresses like you probably treat your own personal address.

Note that this blog isn’t to condemn the author of the discussed article, but to clarify things up since many people moving from Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2007 or Exchange 2010 may run into these behavioral differences. You’re invited to comment or share your opinions in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on “Automatic E-mail Server Notifications in Exchange 2010″

  1. You might be correct, but if a customers decides to send OOF and that they are business critical. And if you implement Edge Servers, it works properly and without any issues. So, I have a dedicated customer sceniaro to proof my article!

    • Markus, I think you’ve missed the point. Despite being seperated from the internal network, the Edge server is part of the Exchange organization so that this setup works is no surprise. However, delivery of MDNs still depends on processing by all elements between your Exchange organization – with or without Edge server – and the receiver, such as the receiver’s e-mail system, gateways or message hygiene services. You’re suggesting that introduction of an Edge server results in a 100% success; I doubt that. Are you perhaps utilizing address rewriting on the Edge server?

  2. This is one of the few articles found on the internet really explaining problems with MDN’s.

    Since november this year we are using Exchange 2010 with Outlook 2003/2007 clients. Fortunately our OOF’s are send with sender adress (why?) and do not cause any problems.

    We are having problems with incoming messages that exceed max. mail size. These messages are found in the log but the sender is not notified. So these e-mails just disappear!. We see serveral outgoing messages with MAIL FROM: in the log but we can not trace their origin.

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