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How Exchange 2013 Gets Social for Collaboration

How Exchange 2013 Gets Social for Collaboration

One of the initial messages around the launch of Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 was that it would be more collaboration-friendly, or indeed, more sociable. In fact, one story around the whole of Microsoft's Wave 15 products is their increased interconnectedness -- that, and the whole extra reliance on the cloud, of course. But it's this collaboration story with Exchange 2013 I was interested to find out more about.

According to Microsoft's website, Exchange 2013 is designed "to support people and organizations as their work habits evolve from a communication focus to a collaboration focus." They also make the point that we're dealing with a "multigenerational workforce," and recognizing that point to me means also recognizing that every technology or every method of collaboration isn't going to succeed with every worker, or every age group. Exchange 2013, in fact, has a number of new or improved methods for enabling collaboration.

For starters, of course, there's the revived notion of public folders, but built around special mailboxes rather than a separate database so they can be treated just like any other mailbox for high availability, discoverability, and so forth. These modern public folders also bring this concept to the cloud for Office 365 users for the first time, as the previous public folder model was not available in Exchange Online. And you should be able to use them for the types of material you've come to expect -- archived, public conversations that don't appear in user's Inboxes.

If you plan to migrate existing public folders to the new model, Microsoft has provided PowerShell scripts, which are installed along with Exchange 2013, that you'll need to run to do the job. Of course, the TechNet information only explains migration from Exchange 2010 SP3, so presumably you'll need to upgrade to this version before you can perform the migration. (And note that SP3 isn't available yet; announced back in September, it's expected to release "in the first half of calendar year 2013.") Meanwhile, users on Exchange 2013 mailboxes can continue to use existing public folders from Exchange 2010 or Exchange 2007 if you're running in a coexistence scenario. However, users on those previous versions can't access the new modern public folders, so the rule here is to migrate your users before your public folder data as you move forward to Exchange 2013.

The second major addition for collaboration in Exchange 2013 is the new Site Mailboxes, which allow for easy integration with SharePoint to gather both email and documents in a single workspace. All content is discoverable and subject to policy enforcement, and access is permissions-based so you can set up a workspace for a specific project and include only the members who need to be involved. You can also use lifecycle management through SharePoint so that the Site Mailbox and SharePoint workspace close after a specified date, which should be really handy in environments where you're dealing with sensitive information that you don't want to leave floating out there.

The big downside to Site Mailboxes, of course, is the requirement to use SharePoint 2013 and Outlook 2013 in addition to Exchange 2013 for this system to work. That's a whole lot of upgrading at once, and my guess is this feature just isn't a strong enough reason to justify it. Organizations that are moving to these versions anyway might find they have good cause to implement Site Mailboxes, but otherwise I suspect the adoption will be rather slow.

In addition to these two new features, Microsoft has also enhanced, or at least made it easier to manage, a couple of traditional staples of collaboration, shared mailboxes and distribution lists. Although shared mailboxes haven't really changed, setting them up has become much simpler through the Exchange Administration Center (EAC). Distribution lists, which seem to be called distribution groups in Exchange 2013, are also managed through EAC, but you can certainly use Exchange Management Shell (EMS) if you prefer. You can have distribution groups with specific, fixed memberships or you can create dynamic groups based on Active Directory (AD) attributes. Groups can be moderated both for membership and individual messages. EAC includes the ability to add MailTips appropriate to groups as well so you can give members additional information about the use or purpose of the group.

So there you go -- Exchange 2013 gets social to help your teams collaborate. At least, that's the goal. It remains to be seen whether these changes and new features will catch on with Exchange administrators and end users. You'll have to let me know how things go if you're implementing any of the new stuff.

(Thanks to Nathan Winters and his presentation, "Collaboration and Exchange," from the fall 2012 Microsoft Exchange Connections conference for much of the information included here.)

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
Follow Windows IT Pro on Twitter at @windowsitpro

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