Exchange 2003 and Outlook 2003 enter the final two years

There’s been some recent commentary about the fact that Windows XP will reach its formal end-of-life milestone in less than two years time. What might just have passed you by is that the same thing happened for Exchange 2003 and Outlook 2003 on April 8, 2012. In other words, on April 8, 2014 these products reach their planned end-of-life and after that time Microsoft will cease to worry about small but important details such as security updates, bug fixes, and the like.

Neither product will stop working when the magic date happens, but it’s a brave administrator that plans to continue into the unknown without the comforting feeling that they can call Microsoft support if they meet a bad bug or suffer a security issue. Actually, they can probably still call Microsoft support but I predict that the subsequent conversation will be a frustrating and unsatisfying experience. Come to think of it, just like many other telephone calls with support desks. Before I receive a barrage of hate mail to tell me just how horribly I have maligned support organizations, let me point out that I have both worked for and been responsible for product support and know exactly how difficult the job is and how unsatisfying calls can be from the other side of the phone line.

Microsoft has already applied the mark of doom to Outlook 2003 by refusing to allow it to be a client for Exchange Online in Office 365. Indeed, it was only through enormous customer pressure that Microsoft fixed the problems in Exchange 2010 to allow Outlook 2003 to function as a semi-reasonable client. I still hold to my position that your friends wouldn’t allow you to deploy Exchange 2010 with Outlook 2003 as a client simply because the resulting combination is so unpleasing and prone to user unhappiness.

On the other hand, I actually agreed with Microsoft that Outlook 2003 shouldn’t be supported in Office 365 deployments. When you create a brand-new cloud service that is heavily dependent on solid automated operations to achieve its SLA targets, the last thing you want to cater for is a collection of antiquated clients. If companies want to move into the cloud and embrace Office 365, it’s reasonable to ask them to make a client upgrade. I’ve sold this story to a number of CIOs who had heartburn about the lack of Outlook 2003 support… or rather, thought they had because the IT department had told them it was an issue.

What about Exchange 2003? It’ll be sad to see this pretty solid version of Exchange reach the buffers but it’s really time to say goodbye to the last great X.400-based implementation, complete with link state routing based on Dijkstra’s algorithm (many a good conference session was occupied with details of this as applied to Exchange), routing and administration groups, storage groups, and the like. I know it’s hard to migrate and that no one likes migrations because they are invariably messy, disruptive, and expensive, but it’s time to change.

Moving to a new version of Exchange takes time. I think many of the larger companies who ran Exchange 2003 have already moved to Exchange 2007 or Exchange 2010. Smaller companies who run Exchange 2003 today, including those who use Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) will probably find that Office 365 is an attractive option, especially if they don’t have a lot of in-house technical expertise or a desire to master the intricacies of a new version of Exchange plus the potential additional deployment of a new version of Windows Server. In these circumstances, the notion of handing everything over to Microsoft with the promise that they’ll take care of future upgrades and maintenance is very attractive. My caution here is to look before you leap.

Office 365 offers many advantages and is slowly accumulating a reasonable record in terms of reliability but changing from an on-premises deployment to move into the cloud has many downsides that need to be taken into account. For example, your network infrastructure has to change to accommodate the client traffic to Office 365 datacenters, something that might not be achievable if you live in an area where reliable broadband is expensive or simply difficult to install. Support is another thing to take into account. Once you join Office 365, you become one amongst the masses and have to accept that Microsoft delivers service on that basis. In other words, whereas today if you have a traditional support contract, you can report specifics of your problem to Microsoft support and the issue will be dealt with by taking all of the specifics of your environment into account. This won’t happen with the “one size fits all” model used by cloud services. That being said, the resources that Microsoft dedicate to Office 365 means that its reliability record is probably better than that achieved by many traditional in-house IT departments.

If I was using Outlook 2003 or Exchange 2003 now, I think I’d use the fact that they are reaching end of life as a checkpoint from which to plan the future evolution of these elements of the IT infrastructure together with associated products such as Windows Server, SharePoint, Lync, and so on. Starting now, or at least in the near future, should mean that you’ll be well prepared for the time when support ceases for Outlook 2003 and Exchange 2003.

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