How the M: Drive came about
Published Feb 09 2004 02:00 PM 3,104 Views

In Exchange 2000, we introduced a new feature called IFS. IFS stands for “Installable File System”. This uses a little known and even less used feature of NT that allows the OS’s file system (like NTFS or FAT) to be replaced. The initial reason for doing that was as an optimization: it would allow protocols, such as NNTP and SMTP, to transfer the MIME messages directly as files. In Exchange 5.5, MIME messages are broken down into MAPI properties and stored in database tables. When they need to be accessed as MIME, they are put back together. In E2K, MIME messages are stored as MIME files in IFS and only converted into MAPI if a MAPI client (such as Outlook) accesses them. The other perceived benefit of IFS was that the Exchange storage objects could then be made visible through the file system. So you could go to a drive letter (M: was chosen for two reasons: first, “M” for “Mail”, and second, because it was in the middle of the alphabet and least likely to collide either with actual storage drives -which start at A and move up - or mapped network drives - which start at Z and move down), and get a list of mailboxes, navigate to mail folders via cmd or windows explorer and look at actual messages. This was considered pretty neat at the time and since it didn’t seem to be much more work to allow that access, it was thrown in (there may have been other, better reasons but I’m not aware of them). This ended up causing some challenges down the line related to the intricacies in how email objects need to be handled and mapping the file access behavior to them One of the biggest problems encountered was around security descriptors. This is difficult to explain without a detailed understanding of NT security descriptors, so I will simplify the explanation for the purpose of this discussion. The main part of an NTSD is called a DACL (discretionary access control list). It contains a list of users and groups and what they can do to that object. There are two main types of entries: allows, which say what an entity can do; and denies, which say what they can’t. The order of this list is very important. A standard sequence of entry types is called “canonical”. NT canonical form calls for a particular sequence. Because of legacy issues, MAPI canonical form requires a difference sequence of entry types. Applications that modify security expect a particular sequence and will behave erratically if the sequence is wrong. By creating or modifying objects through the M: drive, it will change the canonical format of the DACL’s and result in unexpected security behavior. This is bad. A related issue here has to do with item level security. E2K also introduced this feature, which is that items in a folder can be secured independently of each other and the folder. While this has some great uses, for many email systems this level of security is not needed. When a message has the folder default security, it simply references that property in the folder. When a message has its own security, there is an additional property that needs to be stored (this also has an affect on how folder aggregate properties, such as unread count, are computed). Having lots of individual security descriptors can result in both increased storage size and poor performance. When a message is created or modified through the M: drive, it will always get an individual security descriptor stamped on it, even if it is exactly the same as the folder default. This can also lead to unexpected behavior. For instance, if you change the default security on the folder, it will not change the security on any messages in it that have their own security descriptors. They have to be resecured individually. Another challenge is in relation to virus scanners. Virus scanners typically look for valid storage drives and spin through all the files on those drives and check them against virus signatures. The M: drive appears as a normal drive, so virus scanners were picking this up and processing it. This can have very detrimental affects on system performance and may also result in message corruption in some cases. Finally, IFS runs in kernel mode. This is a privileged execution path and it means that problems in this area can have much more severe affects (and be harder to track down) than in other areas of Exchange, which all run in user mode. Blue screens are one possibility if something goes wrong. IFS has given Exchange 2000 and Exchange 2003 a lot of advantages: we maintain content parity for MIME and make MIME message handling faster and more efficient as well as increasing the performance of such messages retrieved via internet protocols. But as I described above, there can be problems if IFS is misused via the M: drive. In Exchange 2003 we have disabled the M: drive by default to hopefully help reduce the likelihood that customers will encounter any of the issues described above. I encourage every system administrator to keep this disabled on E2K3 and disable it on all E2K servers as well. Jon Avner
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