With Exchange Server 2013 Preview available for a few months now and the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) last week, we're getting a clearer picture all the time of what the New Exchange has in store. At MEC, the Microsoft message was pretty strong around the security and compliance story for Exchange 2013, which is good news of course. But overall, what impresses me more and more is the general simplification of Exchange -- all while providing improved performance and new or enhanced functionality.
Exchange 2013's simplicity appears both in its architecture and management tools. For the architecture, the big news is that the number of server roles has been reduced from five to two. You'll have to deploy only Mailbox servers and Client Access servers; the functions of the Hub Transport and Unified Messaging servers have been rolled into one or the other of the two remaining. As for the Edge Transport, while it won't be present in Exchange Server 2013 at launch, I've heard some rumors that it might be reintroduced in some form perhaps along with service pack 1 (SP1). In the meantime, Exchange 2013 can function with Edge servers from Exchange 2010 or Exchange 2007 if you've deployed them in your environment.
On the management front, Exchange 2013 simplification comes by way of the Exchange Administration Console (EAC), the new web-based GUI for running your Exchange environment. EAC combines and replaces the functionality of Exchange Management Console (EMC), which has been around since Exchange 2000, and Exchange Control Panel (ECP), the web-based management interface introduced in Exchange 2010. In keeping with the overall Microsoft trend, the EAC UI is designed with the simplified Windows 8, Metro-style look, making it easy to read, and easy to find what you need with few clicks. (For the PowerShell aficionados, rest assured that Exchange Management Shell is still available for management, too.)
Additionally, EAC is the management interface whether you're running Exchange on premises or using Exchange Online through Microsoft Office 365 -- or a hybrid configuration of both. As Microsoft speaker Julie Xu said during her MEC session on "Manageability in the New Exchange," EAC is "one console to rule them all," with a nice little nod to The Lord of the Rings there. Along the same lines, the Outlook 2013 desktop application interface and the Outlook Web App interface in Exchange 2013 are nearly indistinguishable, giving end users an outstanding experience on either platform.
This trend toward simplification for Exchange will certainly be welcomed by Exchange administrators. There were good reasons to split the server roles apart in the development of Exchange 2007, but the added complexity in deployment and management has been a definite pain point ever since. In fact, in a recent non-scientific Instant Poll on the Exchange & Outlook page of WindowsITPro.com, when asked the question, "Which of the new features in Exchange Server 2013 are you most looking forward to getting into your production environment?" the leading response by a wide margin was "Simplified architecture (i.e., only two server roles, Client Access and Mailbox)."
In addition to admins, the third-party vendors generally also see this move as a win. At MEC, I spoke with vendors such as F5 Networks, KEMP Technologies, Binary Tree, Messageware, Mimecast, and others, all of which offer products or services that directly interact with Exchange. The message I heard repeated in one form or another from each of them was that if their existing solutions weren't already compatible with Exchange 2013, they should be by the time Exchange 2013 is ready for production environments. That's good news for companies considering an upgrade because you might not have to buy all new third-party add-ons as well -- but be sure to check with your specific vendors to make sure.
Not all the news around simplification is necessarily good. Simplifying sometimes means leaving things out, and anytime you do that, you're likely to have someone who's upset about it. For instance, as Tony Redmond pointed out, EAC doesn't provide the PowerShell cmdlets necessary to perform the underlying actions of the GUI commands, meaning that potential avenue of training is gone. Another simplification is the change to use RPC-over-HTTPS for all connections to Outlook clients, which could mean some extra care is necessary for configuration.
Nonetheless, Exchange 2013 should be a welcome change to any admins that feared the upgrade from Exchange 2003 after the server roles were split. Of course, for organizations who are still on Exchange 2003, there's no direct migration path to Exchange 2013; you'll have to move to Exchange 2010 first, and then migrate to Exchange 2013. That's not an ideal situation -- but that's also a problem for another day.