After what seems to have been a much calmer Technology Adoption Program (beta tests), Exchange 2016 passed all the required quality benchmarks to reach Release-to-Manufacturing (RTM) status on September 29. Of course, RTM is an archaic term dating back to the time when software was ceremoniously handed over by development to the folks who created copies of the distribution kit on floppy disks, then CDs, and latterly DVDs for delivery to customers. Today, it’s more like “Release to the Internet” as most people will download a copy of Exchange 2016 from Microsoft to begin the task of testing the new software in operational conditions.The download is available online.
[See a list of the Exchange Server generations below]
I believe that Exchange 2016 is a high-quality release and is in better shape at this point than either Exchange 2010 or Exchange 2013 were. You can argue that those RTM versions set a low bar because of some well-documented problems that were really only sorted out when the first service pack arrived. It’s true that quality was a struggle in the early days of Exchange 2010 and Exchange 2013, but the signs are that the same is not true for Exchange 2016.
If Microsoft was asked why quality is higher, they might reply that it’s all due to better engineering practices. However, I suspect that two other reasons provide better explanations.
The first is that much of Exchange 2016 has been thoroughly exercised in the white heat of Exchange Online. In saying this, it is important to realize that the core components such as the Information Store, Database Availability Group operations such as failovers, and PowerShell support which are important to Office 365 receive the benefit of being used inside Exchange Online.
The High Availability and manageability improvements (some described in the blog announcing the preview version) that are being transferred from the cloud to Exchange 2016 are just one example of how Microsoft is using Office 365 to build more reliable and robust software. The provision of auto-expanding archive mailboxes (now available with Exchange Online) is another.
As it turns out, auto-expanding archives and a number of other anticipated features have been removed from the software made available today to allow Microsoft to do more testing. Because it takes time to accumulate sufficient data to make an auto-expanding archive useful, I don’t think its temporary loss is very important, but the removal of the ability to populate the search index for a database from a passive copy is a disappointment. Microsoft will deliver the delayed features in cumulative updates over the next year or so, just like Exchange 2013 CU4 (SP1) served as the vehicle for the IP-less DAG.
Despite new functionality being tested within Office 365, it’s important to realize that almost every on-premises environment has some particular quirk that might never be used by a cloud platform. In addition, differences do exist between Exchange Online and Exchange on-premises, so don’t depend on Microsoft to do your testing for you.
The second reason is that Exchange 2016 is much closer to its predecessor than any previous version. Sure, differences exist (like the removal of individual server roles), but the core of the two versions is much the same. That’s why I refer to Exchange 2016 as the second service pack for Exchange 2013. Because the two are close, it’s easy to introduce Exchange 2016 into Exchange 2013 organizations and switch mailboxes across. DAGs have to be rebuilt because no DAG can contain servers running different operating systems or versions of Exchange. Note that this release of Exchange 2016 won't block you if you attempt to add an Exchange 2013 server to an Exchange 2016 DAG and vice versa. The block to prevent mixed versions isn't yet in place but it is coming. In the interim, be careful and make sure that your DAG members all run the same software.
The differences between Exchange 2016 and its predecessor will become more obvious when SharePoint 2016 and a new version of the Office Online Server (aka the Office Web Apps Server) can be deployed as this software provides the foundation for features such as “modern attachments”. General availability for both products is due in Q2 2016. Preview versions are available (SharePoint 2016 and OOS) to allow customers to see how SharePoint, Exchange, and the Office Online Server work together, but only in test deployments.
Some will wonder why functionality is already available in Office 365 that Microsoft cannot or will not ship when new products become available. Generally, software running in the cloud will remain ahead of on-premises versions if only because Microsoft exerts total control over Office 365 configurations and operations and can therefore utilize technology that is not yet ready for on-premises deployment. It’s an acceptable risk to deploy software when you have the Exchange and SharePoint engineering teams at your disposal to handle any problems that might arise. That risk becomes unacceptable when the software leaves Microsoft’s control and is put into the hands of on-premises administrators.
The release of new software invariably raises the question of the timing of upgrades. The need or desire to deploy Exchange 2016 is linked to your current platform and future plans.
If you’re running the now-unsupported and pretty ancient Exchange 2003, it’s long past time to get out of the weeds and onto something more modern. You’ll need to get to Exchange 2010 if you want to continue to use a supported on-premises version, but you should really make plans for an accelerated transition to Exchange 2016, which means that Exchange 2010 is only used for as long as is necessary to facilitate that movement. And if your future platform is in the cloud, then you either need to move to Exchange 2010 to establish a hybrid connection, or plan for a one-time over-the-weekend kind of migration, which should be a heap of fun.
Exchange 2007 (SP3) is now in extended support and its time clock is running down to April 11, 2017 when support terminates. It’s time to move and much the same options exist as for Exchange 2003. Remember, Exchange 2007 servers cannot co-exist inside an organization where Exchange 2016 servers are present, so an interim step is required to move workload off those servers to Exchange 2010 or Exchange 2013 servers before you can remove Exchange 2007 and contemplate moving to Exchange 2016.
Exchange 2010 (SP3 RU11) is also in extended support and is the oldest version that can co-exist alongside Exchange 2016. If you plan to stay on-premises, consider jumping over Exchange 2013 and move direct to Exchange 2016, especially if you need hybrid connectivity with Office 365. Because Exchange 2016 was “forged in the cloud”, it’s a better all-round cloud partner.
Exchange 2013 has gradually matured into a solid release and the cumulative updates released since SP1 have been pretty solid. If you’ve kept pace and are running CU9 or CU10, you’re in good shape and don’t really need to plan for an immediate upgrade to Exchange 2016 as you’ve got 90% of the value from that release in your current deployment. But do keep pace because the time will come to make the move, probably after important new features are delivered in Exchange 2016 cumulative updates.
As you plan for Exchange 2016, remember to consider client updates. ActiveSync has been updated, but only slightly and mobile devices should connect to Exchange 2016 as easily as they did to Exchange 2013. Outlook 2016, Outlook 2013, and Outlook 2010 (with KB2965295 – the April 2015 update) are the supported desktop versions. Outlook Web App gets a nice refresh and should come as a welcome update for folks who depend on the browser client. POP3 and IMAP4 clients behave as before (in a little time warp of their own).
In addition, you should contact the vendors of any third-party products that you use alongside Exchange in your production environment to ensure that any updates required to support Exchange 2016 are identified and obtained. I suspect that any product that works with Exchange 2013 will work with Exchange 2016, but the devil is often in the detail, so it’s wise to check. The automated installation script from Michel de Rooij will help you deploy test servers quickly and easily.
To start the ball rolling, online documentation is available for Exchange 2016, including the ever-popular (and now very regular) Active Directory schema updates required to support Exchange 2016. Other sites will publish their own guides to installing and managing Exchange 2016 over the next few months. Let’s hope that we won’t see the combination of cut-and-paste from Microsoft and badly-written (almost unreadable) text that appeared on some sites after Microsoft released the preview of Exchange 2016.
Nearly twenty years after the first version was revealed to the world, it’s a mark of the value that Exchange has delivered to a massive customer base that the product should reach the ninth iteration. Congratulations to the entire product team for achieving general availability for Exchange 2016. The heavy lifting is over, but the hard work of deployment and support starts here.
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The Exchange Generations
4.0, 5.0, and 5.5
“Active Directory and SANs”
2000, 2003, and 2007
2010 and 2013