Excitement about the next Microsoft Exchange Server release seems to be growing, fueled in large part by the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) 2012 that's scheduled for September. Exchange 15, or Exchange 2013 as some believe it will be officially called, will have its grand coming-out party at MEC. Ideally, we won't have to wait until September, however, for the Exchange team to release a public beta of Exchange 15 and begin to discuss some of enhancement they've been working on for the past several years.
Of course, users of Microsoft Office 365 might already be testing features or improvements that won't debut for on-premises deployments until Exchange 15 arrives -- such was the impression given to me by Exchange General Manager Kevin Allison when I spoke with him last fall. Customers who plan to run on-premises Exchange "can have more assurance that this has been run at scale, it's got higher quality," Allison said. "They understand how it's being used and how they can drive that functionality into their businesses. I think that whole model helps facilitate a better on-premises experience."
This development model has been facilitated by putting Exchange Online and Exchange Server under the same development team. As features or enhancements become ready during the development process, they can be implemented in Exchange Online for Office 365 if there's a good reason to do so, and by doing so that code gets thoroughly tested before it appears in an on-premises version. Allison pointed out, however, that they aren't looking at this as development strictly for the cloud. "It's not something that we're going after and saying, hey, you're only going to see it here [in Exchange Online]. Instead it's more of a situation where you're going to see it here first."
One of the Office 365 developments that could have implications in Exchange 15 is the implementation of the Edge Transport server role and Microsoft Forefront Online Protection for Exchange (FOPE). "The Edge server role and transport generally have been combined with what has traditionally been the FOPE stack," Allison said. "We're focusing on protection relative to the FOPE service coming on, focusing it on an online service versus something that we're delivering as a server itself. Today in the Office 365 world, all of our message gateway into the product is through that edge service, which is now FOPE. And we're transitioning the on-premises business into this online mode as well."
"If you look at antivirus, you look at spam, you look at security protection—all of those things are very much a moving target. It's also, for the most part, not really something that you're maintaining state around. You're really acting as an agent between securing your environment and what's kind of a free-for-all out on the Internet," Allison said. "What we're doing is focusing on improving that firewall level and allowing that be the gateway in and out of the service or the gateway in and out of your own on-premises environment through secure routing."
With this in mind, it makes me wonder if in Exchange 15 or a later version of Exchange we might see the Edge server role disappear altogether, its function subsumed by the FOPE service. By all accounts, the Edge role hasn't been widely used in Exchange 2010 or Exchange 2007 deployments as it is. Presumably, organizations are already using other security measures along the lines of FOPE and haven't felt the need of the extra overhead of deploying the Edge role.
Many organizations are concerned about security and compliance issues when considering a switch to Office 365 or other cloud services for messaging. So it was good to hear Allison address these areas as elements of Office 365 that Microsoft has taken a lot of time to develop carefully. "We feel strongly that we can meet any of the requirements out there, and have an environment both on-premises and in the cloud that can meet the strictest requirements," he said. Exchange 2010 added a number of features around compliance and e-discovery -- multi-mailbox search, Role Based Access Control (RBAC) -- and perhaps we should expect further development along these lines in Exchange 15.
Exchange currently doesn't offer advanced compliance or discovery features, such as a comprehensive advanced search feature. Office 365, again, could be a link to changing that situation. As Allison said, "I think the work we're doing toward improving our capability across the stack, whether on premises or in the cloud, with SharePoint, Lync, and Exchange, is where the investment really is: How do we improve discovery itself?" It appears the Exchange team is thinking about these issues, although for truly advanced compliance needs, you'll probably always find more complete solutions from third-party vendors who specialize in this area.
The only thing we know pretty much for sure is that by the end of September and MEC, Exchange 15's secrets will no longer be secret. Microsoft TechEd North America 2012 is less than two weeks away, and there's always some chance the company will use that stage to announce something about Exchange 15 -- although at this point it looks most likely they'll be focusing instead on Windows 8. Anyone want to start a pool on when we'll see an Exchange 15 beta? (No fair playing if you're in the Microsoft TAP for Exchange!)
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
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