Exchange 2010 Architecture: Microsoft's Jon Orton Talks About Exchange Online

By all predictions, this year is expected to see a lot of migrations to Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 from older versions. Of course, one reason for that is the number of organizations that are still running Exchange 2003 and face the upcoming end-of-life of that version. But even businesses already running Exchange 2007 might find benefits in Exchange 2010. And one solution for making the transition to the latest version as seamless and cost-effective as possible would be to consider moving to a hosted version such as Microsoft's Exchange Online or the upcoming Office 365.

As the second in this series looking at Exchange 2010 architecture in relation to the Exchange Server 2010 Architecture Poster, which will be included in the March 2011 issue of Windows IT Pro, I talked to Jon Orton, a senior product manager on the Exchange team with Microsoft. Jon focuses on Exchange Online and is involved with the Office 365 private beta. We talked about the "rich coexistence" organizations can run with Exchange Online and on-premises deployments of Exchange Server. Jon also discussed the benefits to businesses and IT pros when you move your messaging systems to the cloud, as well as what admins and users will get with Microsoft's hosted offerings for Exchange.

(Check out the first article in this series: Exchange 2010 Architecture: Microsoft's Adam Glick Talks About EAS)

Jon: I know that some of the other interviews you've had with the people on the team have centered around the Exchange Server 2010 Architecture Poster coming up \\[in the March 2011 issue of Windows IT Pro\\]. So, for Exchange Online, one of the questions I get asked a lot is what's the same as Exchange Server and what's different? Looking at this Exchange Server architecture poster, it's remarkable how many of the things on the poster apply to Exchange Online and Office 365. So instead of giving you a spiel on Exchange Online and what it is, maybe I can walk around and highlight a few other things.

So as we look at this poster, we see some of the things are the same. Starting at the left, in terms of management, remote PowerShell is available in Exchange Online. The Exchange Control Panel—we have a web-based GUI that gives a great deal of control already in the online environment. It interfaces with the Exchange server and gives a full-featured experience. Role Based Access Control is built in to Exchange Online and Office 365. Customers can get permissions and slice and dice them to meet their company's needs and give administrators and Help desk people the right level of control for their environment. Unified messaging and voicemail are available as a hosted service, and features like call answering rules, voicemail preview, integration with a phone system on-premises, message waiting indicator—all that's there.

In the Mailbox server box \\[on the poster\\], as far as Personal Archive capabilities, management retention policies, legal holds, the ability to recover deleted items, multi-mailbox search for e-discovery—these are all available in Exchange Online. And so on as we march across the poster and talk about end-user things for client access, like mobile device access for ActiveSync, Outlook Web Apps across different browsers, MailTips, support for all the latest Outlook features, all that's the same.

Now granted, some things are different, and any those are easy because you don't need to worry about them in a hosted environment. So for example, database availability groups are used in Exchange Online to provide high availability with replication across geo-redundant data centers, but all that is taken care of and implemented for you. There's no need to plan out storage architecture for cloud users—you get 25GB of storage per user by default. There's no need to configure Edge and Transport servers and so on because you have Forefront outlined for protection for Exchange doing the antivirus and antispam protection built in to the service at no extra charge. People familiar with Exchange Server think about Exchange Online, and one of the great things for them is that they can take things they know—Exchange Server concepts, feature sets, administration—and make them portable to the cloud.

One thing that's not shown on this poster is how Exchange Server and Exchange Online can coexist. We actually considered adding that to this poster, but it was getting a little crowded. Built-in support for hybrid deployment is one of the best kept secrets about Exchange Server 2010. Administrators have the ability to take their Exchange Server deployment on-premises and extend that environment to the cloud and enjoy something we call rich coexistence. If you have a mixed deployment of users in Exchange Online and users in Exchange Server, they can share calendar free/busy data between the cloud and local users, and you can also do some things as far as management and administration. For example, you can use the Exchange Management Console to manage your cloud users and the part of your user base that's on-premises—features like out-of-office message, MailTips, and mail tracking.

Understand that the cloud organization and the on-premises organization for Exchange are really the same organization—they don't treat cloud users as being external to the company. Which also lets customers, if they want to, move users back from the cloud to their on-premises Exchange Server environment in a very easy and seamless way. Instead of having to export data to PSTs and re-create accounts manually on-premises, they can just click a user in the management console and return them back to on-premises. So that's great for doing low-risk pilots and things like that.

The coexistence capability also means that when you move users to the cloud, their Outlook profile in the mailbox is preserved. So when the user is moved to the cloud, they're just reconnected through Autodiscover to the cloud mailbox, and their OST file is preserved so that mailbox content doesn't have to be re-downloaded and take up network bandwidth. The user can seamlessly switch over. There's a bunch of smaller features with that. But that, at a high level, is the hybrid story.

The interesting thing about this story is for customers running Exchange 2003 or Exchange 2007 today on-premises, they can get those capabilities simply by putting in an Exchange Server 2010 Client Access server and configuring some federation capabilities. There's no need to upgrade their entire organizations to Exchange Server 2010 if their goal is to move straight to the cloud. So the magic ingredient there is the Exchange 2010 Client Access server. That's sort of how it works at a high level.

Jon (cont.): One question that I get is why would customers want to set up something like this—why would they want to extend their Exchange deployment to the cloud? Why not just move users to Exchange Online over a weekend? We do have tools, cloud-based tools, that make it easy to do a full weekend cutover. What I find is that many customers are interested in exploring the benefits of the cloud, but they don't want to dive right in. The coexistence capabilities let them dip a toe in the water by moving some users to the cloud, moving at different speeds, and migrating to the cloud at their own pace.

For most companies, a hybrid state will just be temporary as they migrate users to the cloud over time. In some cases, companies might need an extended coexistence. For example, if a large multinational organization has multiple remote sites, and some of those remote sites have very poor network bandwidth or latency, they might want to keep a server on-premises there so they can leave that part of the organization on a local Exchange server so they're not dependent on going out to the Internet for all their email—but they could link that \\[part of the\\] organization to their cloud Exchange Online deployment. Or they might have locations that require an in-country Exchange server because of regulatory reasons. So they may want to keep some users on-premises because of technical or regulatory requirements.

One approach that's popular is a user segmentation approach to planning their email deployment. They'll say, "We have certain users that are very light email users or maybe don't even have email." They'll put those users in the cloud and take advantage of our deskless offering at $2 per user per month, and they'll keep the rest of their corporate staff on-premises. We know from our research internally that although about 100 percent of organizations provide email to their employees, the actual percentage of their employees that get email is only about half because a lot of businesses have workers who are in retail stores, or out on a factory floor, or flight attendants in airplanes all day—these people are not sitting behind desks. What customers are discovering is that there's value in providing basic email services to those employees who are on the move, not traditional sitting-behind-desk workers. Those workers make great candidates for moving to the cloud, and the hybrid deployment capabilities are a great way to do this.

So whatever the customer's current deployment situation and whatever their goals are concerning the cloud, we've got a solution for them. We can deploy Exchange Server 2010 on-premises and remain on-premises, and they're setup. Should they later decide they want to explore the cloud, they can cutover quickly to Exchange Online if that's the direction they want to go and they want to move fast. Or they can connect their Exchange 2003, Exchange 2007, Exchange 2010 environment to the cloud and enjoy rich coexistence and migrate at whatever pace they want. So that's the overview of how hybrid works and how Exchange Online and Exchange Server compare.

BKW: That's a really good place to start. You touched on this a little with your overview, but what would you say makes Exchange Online or Office 365 particularly attractive to businesses as a whole and also to the IT pros who are going to be managing this as opposed to a traditional in-house Exchange organization?

Jon: I'll break that into two parts. The advantages for the business or the organization as the whole for a cloud-based deployment for email are basically those same things that are driving the general conversation and interest in cloud-based services: the ability to have flexibility in scaling up or down in the infrastructure; the potential for cost-savings; and taking advantage of the economies of scale in the cloud from having someone like Microsoft deploy millions of mailboxes and look after things like high availability, geo-redundancy of data centers, monitoring expertise, and offload that to Microsoft—they can do it in a more efficient way. You also get the ability to have IT spend less time keeping the lights on and more time working on new projects and things to move the business forward.

Email is very similar to the other workloads being talked about in terms of candidates for moving to the cloud—it's a great fit in many respects as one of the first workloads to consider moving to the cloud, and that's what we've seen in our current Exchange Online offering. The Exchange part of that suite—that includes Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync—is driving a lot of the movement because email for many years has been moving toward a model that's suitable for the cloud. If you think about Outlook Web App, the web-based email experience we have in Exchange, that's been around for years and years in many versions of Exchange. It was the first AJAX web application. The protocols that have been used to exchange email between businesses are Internet-ready and Internet-friendly. Back in the days of Exchange 2003 and Outlook 2003, we introduced the concept of Outlook Anywhere so you could connect Outlook to your Exchange environment without a VPN. So the preparation has been going on for many years.

Because email is depended on quite a bit, and is used by many users in the organization, people can look at that and see big potential savings in terms of cost and time by moving that workload to the cloud. Especially for those running Exchange today, when they think about the ability to essentially have their users continue using Outlook the same way they do today, continue to use Outlook Web App the same way they do today, their mobile devices using ActiveSync function the same way—the opportunity is for it to be a transparent move for them because essentially they just shifted the backend from an on-premises environment to a cloud environment with the same Exchange capabilities. There's not much they have to give up or sacrifice. On the admin side, with Office 365 they can have a lot of the same concepts they're familiar with to manage Exchange, transport rules and retention policies and so on. That's why the email workload has been so popular as a candidate for moving to the cloud.

Talking with IT pros, they often acknowledge the potential benefits of cloud-based services. But because the IT pros know that email is critical, they are aware that the best way to get fired is to mess up your email system, so they're approaching this with understandable caution. They want to make sure that things like security, compliance, uptime and reliability, and things like their ability to control the environments are covered and that they won't have to make sacrifices as part of the move.

Jon (cont.): In my discussions with some of our customers who have moved their environment to Exchange Online either in whole or in part, the IT pros have told me that the care and feeding of Exchange Server after they move to the cloud was something they didn't have to worry about anymore, and they loved that. They still want the ability to manage policies, to customize the environment to meet the needs of their business, and that part of the job is still applicable. In fact with Office 365's capabilities to use remote PowerShell, Exchange Control Panel, Role Based Access Control, auditing reports—all these tools give them the ability to retain control over their email environment even though someone else is taking care of those routine tasks like doing server backups, applying patches, and those things. It's a winning combination.

There's a longstanding tradition of IT pros spending something like 80 percent of their time keeping the lights on, which doesn't leave a lot of time leftover to focus on innovation. Cloud services like Exchange Online give IT the ability to focus on what they want to do and leave the non-differentiating activity, like performing backups and applying patches, to providers like Microsoft who can do it cost-effectively and reliably. So, that lets the IT leaders offer new solutions that previously would've been either cost-prohibitive or too difficult to implement, and just crowded out by the need to maintain what was already in place. So that's what I hear from customers.

BKW: You mentioned that IT pros still raise this issue about security as one of their sticking points for moving to the cloud. One of the other things that I hear from IT pros is this fear that if they outsource these services to the cloud, essentially they're outsourcing their jobs. But obviously, as you've mentioned, that's not really true. So is there a way that you speak to customers and IT pros to help them see that there's still a big management piece that needs to be run in-house? A decision about using a hosted email solution probably isn't going to be made within the IT department—it's going to be made by the business leaders outside the IT department—but IT pros need to be ready for it one way or the other.

Jon: So that notion or that fear that if I start moving some of my services to the cloud eventually it could cost me my job is one we heard a lot years ago, and frankly the more and more customers I talk to after they have deployed Exchange Online, the more I'm of the opinion that that is a complete myth. Because, what happens is even though some aspects of their previous workday don't have to be done anymore, such as verifying that the previous night's backup for email was successful, the IT pros that I talk to have so many things on their to-do list that those things that are taken off are immediately backfilled with other things that they've been meaning to get to and so on.

So the customers that have moved to the cloud have found that there's not the headcount reduction; there's just a shift in what's being done. And the shift to the cloud often involves moving from older versions of software—for example, a company might be on Exchange 2003 in the backend. The customers I've talked to in the Office 365 private beta can essentially get two versions worth of Exchange new features and capabilities. They are thrilled with the ability to activate those features, apply them to their organization, roll them out to users, and so on. That's where some of the time goes as well—rolling out productivity-enhancing capabilities and things that help the business manage risk better, like Personal Archives or retention policies. So I'm just not seeing it with the customers I talk to that actually go through this. There's big concern on the front end; on the back end, it's just not happening.

BKW: How is the beta going for Office 365? What are you hearing from customers, and what types of problems have cropped up during that process?

Jon: The general feedback from the customers and partners who are in the Office 365 private beta is enthusiasm and desire, for many of those customers, to accelerate their deployments and go beyond just kicking the tires and playing around. In some cases, the customers have gotten ahead of the documentation we've provided for them thus far in setting up aspects of the hybrid deployment or exploring certain features because they're so eager to move more and more of their users into the beta environment for real and activate new features and move ahead. That enthusiasm has been great.

The new features in Office 365 for Exchange Online are too many to itemize, but customers have been most excited about the benefits for IT. The benefits for end users in Exchange Online and Office 365 are pretty well understood: 25GB mailboxes, full support for Outlook, web-based browser experience, access from a wide range of mobile phones, calendaring, conference rooms, shared contacts—all those capabilities that end users are used to and expect, including the latest new stuff like MailTips, the ability to ignore conversations, the latest features of Exchange unified messaging and voicemail.

What they haven't expected as much is what they're able to do in terms of administrative controls. So, the ability to use PowerShell to manage aspects of their hosted Exchange environment is very popular among customers in the beta. They look at the list of those PowerShell cmdlets that are available to them, and the type of customization they can do, and they see a freedom that just wasn't there \\[with previous hosted email solutions\\]. There are many things in the web-based Exchange Control Panel that are easy to use and available, but the amount of things they can do through PowerShell and automate through PowerShell is surprising.

Jon (cont.): Also, because security control is at the top of their minds when they think about the cloud, the fact that Role Based Access Control is implemented in the same full-featured way as \\[it is in on-premises Exchange deployments\\] is also very popular. It means they can take tasks like performing e-discovery, multi-mailbox searches, and they can delegate those to responsible users in the business, and not have all those requests come through IT. They also have auditing reports and capabilities that allow tracking to just one environment to maintain visibility over that.

There's been a lot of interest in the ability to integrate on-premises phone systems with hosted voicemail provided by Exchange Online. Customers who were interested in doing this on-premises realized that because the infrastructure part is taken care of in the cloud, they just need to deploy a device in their perimeter network and connect to their phone system to get things like the ability to have users receive voicemails in their inbox, get a text preview of what the voicemail is about, and even listen to it. That's really popular.

There have been a lot of questions and interest about the compliance and archive features that are built in. Because there's now a built-in email archiving option \\[with Exchange 2010\\], that's included in our basic subscription. And there's multi-mailbox search capabilities, retention policies, transport rules, legal holds. There's been a lot of discussion about those, and we're spending a lot of time with customers helping them understand how they can take those platform tools and apply them and customize them to meet their business needs.

The feedback overall is extremely positive. The area where we've had the most concerns and complaints is mostly about helping customers with understanding how all those features can be adapted and apply in their own environments—how they put them to work in their business and how they use this stuff for real. We're working hard to expand our documentation and the stuff we have on the web so people can get that information and not be held up by it.

BKW: I was reading something that Paul Thurrott wrote about using Office 365, and he mentioned the migration tools that are built-in. I think if I read it correctly, he said that the migration tools are only for smaller organizations, 1,000 users or less ("Hands on with Office 365"). Could you talk a little about what those tools are and what other migration assistance Microsoft offers for companies that are planning to move to an online version of Exchange?

Jon: There's basically three migration tools that we provide that are free and available for customers to use, and there's also solutions from partners that have added on to that. Of the three that are from us, first of all, you have the ability to do a quick migration with cutover. So that's just a web page–based interface that you can use with your Exchange 2003, 2007, or any IMAP-based mail provider, to migrate mailbox content to the cloud and do a cutover migration. So if you have 50 or 100 users, that could be a great option because you just provide this web page with credentials to log in and access your on-premises mail environment, and then it launches a process that will replicate mail from on-premises to the cloud. Once that replication is complete, you can just switch over your MX records to your cloud environment, and you're off and running. That's kind of our fast cutover option that's available.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have that rich coexistence scenario that I was talking about earlier. This is where you link your Exchange 2003 or Exchange 2007 environment to Exchange Online by deploying an Exchange 2010 Client Access server in the environment, and that gives you the full enchilada of capabilities like free/busy sharing, seamless off-boarding, and the ability to manage both sets of users from one tool, and so on. Anyone that has upgraded to Exchange 2010 already has that built in, and organizations on Exchange 2003 and 2007 that have several hundred users or more and are looking to move some part of their organization to the cloud will find that to be an attractive option. There's more setup involved, but it gives you a smoother migration experience.

And then in the middle, we have a third option, which is kind of a blend of the first two. We call it simple coexistence. It gives you the ability to migrate users to the cloud in batches and have a simple coexistence between Exchange Online and Exchange 2003 or 2007. It doesn't give you the free/busy sharing and those other capabilities that rich coexistence does, but for organizations that are thinking about a staged move that will happen over a relatively short time, and they want to minimize the impact to their on-premises IT, that's a good choice for them.

Those are the three options we provide, and as you can tell they focus mainly on Exchange 2003 and Exchange 2007, and Exchange 2010 has those capabilities built in. Then we have partners who are part of the Office 365 private beta that are developing tools for migrating from Notes, from GroupWise, and from older versions of Exchange with full fidelity to the cloud. So I think what Paul was referring to was the first of those options, the fast cutover, which is designed for and limited to organizations with less than 1,000 users. The documentation we published on the rich coexistence option and those more advanced scenarios has really only been provided directly to the customers in the private beta who raised their hands and said, "I want to try this now." We're in the process of publishing that over time so it will be available to everyone soon.

BKW: OK, so those coexistence scenarios would apply to larger organizations?

Jon: Right. You think about anything larger than a couple hundred users, they're going to want to have some sort of coexistence to make the migration experience smoother.

BKW: The last thing I would ask, then, is what can you say about the future of Exchange Online and Office 365? What kind of developments can people expect for the products?

Jon: The future looks bright. Customers are loving today's Exchange Online service, and they love it for those reasons we've discussed. They love the idea of putting their email on Microsoft's redundant servers, and having it automatically protected from viruses and spam, having 99.9 percent financially backed uptime, 25GB mailboxes. All that stuff is available today for purchase, and with the release of Office 365, we're adding the capabilities of Exchange Server 2010 SP1 to those benefits, so it gets even better. Those in the private beta have been very excited about testing all that stuff that's new and additional.

As we roll out Office 365 and what's beyond, we'll continue to add new capabilities to make both the cloud version of Exchange and the on-premises version of Exchange even better over time, and continue to build on the momentum we've got and have already seen.

BKW: Sounds great. Thanks, Jon.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
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