At last week’s IT Forum ’05 highlights (part 2) event, Microsoft UK’s, Brett Johnson gave a presentation about the next version of Exchange Server (codenamed Exchange 12). Microsoft is positioning Exchange 12 around three “themes”:
- Control for the IT professional: e-mail is a mission critical system; e-mail systems are too complex and expensive to run (involving too much firefighting and very little proactivity); management tasks are tedious and are not automated.
- Inbox value and access for the information worker: users want to access all of their communications easily; mobile devices are increasingly common; calendaring is frustrating (especially when finding resources).
- Active protection in a security situation: security is a top concern (make it secure by default); unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) and viruses compromise the e-mail experience (filter these using less CPU cycles); regulatory compliance is critical in many industries.
Exchange 12 is still work in progress, so the feature set is by no means set in stone; however beta 1 has been released to a limited group of testers (although I haven’t used my copy because the non-disclosure agreement would stop me writing about it – the information in this post is all from the public domain). The main enhancements for IT administrators included with beta 1 include:
- A new administrative console, based on the MMC v3.0, with a simplified hierarchy and an actions pane.
- A scriptable command line management shell (codenamed Monad).
- Automatic client detection and configuration (no more MAPI profile generation).
- New server roles.
- 64-bit optimisation.
The five Exchange Server roles for Exchange 12 are:
- Edge server – located within an organisation’s DMZ, the edge server is analogous to the current smarthost/mailsweeper role, but actually performed on an Exchange Server.
- Client access – similar to an Exchange Server 2003 front-end server, acting as a proxy and managing connections for Outlook web access (OWA), Outlook RPC over HTTP and Windows Mobile connections.
- Mailbox – where the data is stored.
- Hub transport – allows a level of security policy separation; e.g. to prevent certain groups of users from receiving e-mail from the Internet.
- Unified messaging – no longer just something to talk about. This really is voicemail in the Inbox.
Combined with the automatic client configuration, this role-based model simplifies deployment and management, reducing cost and complexity.
In common with most of the Longhorn Server range of products Exchange 12 will be available in 64-bit editon only. Microsoft’s rationale for this is that over the last 10 years since Exchange Server 4.0, we’ve seen:
- An increase in e-mail traffic.
- An increase in e-mail message sizes.
- Larger attachments (and a greater number of them).
- More unique client devices per user.
- A growing use of calendaring.
- More granular security rights.
- More users per server.
All of this adds up to a need for more memory (improved stability and more “elbow-room” for the operating system allowing new functionally) and a larger cache (increasing performance, enabling further server consolidation and reducing the cost of large mailboxes).
64-bit computing delivers reduced cost and complexity with reduced input/output to bigger, cheaper disks allowing more databases per server. Some are quoting a 70% performance increase over 32-bit systems. Continuous database replication with local or clustered log shipping means that maintenance activities can be moved from nightly to weekly and a new content indexer allows for efficient multi-mailbox searching with a low CPU impact and fast re-index.
Secure messaging is facilitated by protecting messages in transit and at rest. Intra-organisational e-mail is encrypted by default and signed by default. Business-to-business (B2B) integration requires no special client requirements, with automatic Exchange 12 to Exchange 12 gateway encryption. Messaging policies can be used to enable corporate, regulatory and litigation compliance with: transport rules for journalling, archiving, encryption and routing; storage rules for e-mail retention; and multi-mailbox searching.
From a client perspective, as for previous versions of Exchange, although legacy clients can be used, Outlook 2007 (previously codenamed Outlook 12) will provide the richest experience. OWA has an Outlook “feel” and like previous OWA versions offers many of the Outlook features, but is really a reduced-functionality client for hot-desking. There’s also access for Windows Mobile devices, and Outlook by phone – allowing a user to call into Exchange and control their e-mail using speech or touch tones to interface with an auto-attendant.
Having seen some of the Exchange 12 functionality demonstrated to me, I’m impressed. Just a few points that jumped out for me were:
- The client interface is a bit like Windows Live Messenger (in style), but obviously still looks like Outlook.
- OWA is fast, and looks to be even better than in Exchange Server 2003.
- The out of office assistant (OOOA) can be set on a time period, so it will know when you expect to be back in the office and turn itself off again.
- Contact properties include a map to the address (a feature borrowed from Mozilla Thunderbird) as well as the organisational hierarchy (or “steps to heaven” as it is known in Microsoft, demonstrating just how hierarchical Microsoft is).
The unified messaging looks great. In the demonstration I saw, Microsoft UK’s Ewan Dalton left a voicemail in an mailbox and the system picked up his caller ID to say who it was from, leaving a voice clip attached to the message. Where caller ID wasn’t available, the message was from “Anonymous Caller”. Upon playback, audio notes could be added in the message body. Later, he called into the unified messaging server again, using voice-activation to report that be was running late and so to move his first appointment, to clear the calendar until a specified time and to append a voice message to the meeting cancellation(s). The attendant (predictably) had a north-American accent, but coped admirably with Ewan’s Scottish tones and although beta 1 only includes voice activation for calendar, beta 2 will include e-mail too. Pretty soon I will be checking my e-mail as I drive down the M40 towards Slough… then maybe I won’t spend the first hour of my day in Outlook.
Exchange builds on the Exchange messaging platform (which has been around since 1996 now) and the significant improvements in Exchange Server 2003 SP2, to provide even more options for enterprise messaging and communications. I’m particularly pleased to see edge services (dropped from previous releases) and unified messaging (which has been talked about for years, but looks like it will finally make it into the product). I haven’t seen a product roadmap (in terms of timelines, or further enhancements in the next release) but I expect to see organisations putting this technology into production from 2007 onwards.