Unexpected Uses for Existing Technologies

I was surprised to read a front-page story in the local newspaper about an innovative program in the local Federal district court. The court is using Apple Computer iPods to hold audio copies of wiretap transmissions in a large drug-conspiracy case. There are about two dozen defendants, and the judge in the case has entered an order to limit access to the wiretap audio files. The iPod provides a nifty solution: It's portable, but easy to secure; it's low cost compared with having the wiretaps transcribed to text; and it's simple for the defendants and their attorneys to use.

That example got me thinking about unusual applications for Exchange Server and Windows technologies. After some head-scratching, I came up with a list of several creative uses for technologies that go beyond what the designers and implementers originally intended.

First, let's talk about Messaging API (MAPI), which was originally intended to be a client-server protocol for mail access. Because Microsoft Outlook uses MAPI to access mailboxes, many third-party developers have taken advantage of MAPI to write products such as mailbox backup tools and antivirus scanners that log on to the Store just like a user would. Cemaphore Systems takes this trick to a new level in its MailShadow product by using MAPI to monitor selected mailboxes and replicate their contents to another server. The MAPI protocol lets MailShadow provide fast mailbox replication without the need for special APIs or funny agents.

The SCSI interface standard comes to mind next, for two reasons. First, the iSCSI standards committee realized that SCSI was a versatile enough protocol to allow transport of its commands and data over TCP/IP, so we got a perfectly usable SAN transport that uses what look like standard SCSI commands but which travel over inexpensive network equipment instead of expensive Fibre Channel gear. In a related development, clever folks figured out how to use iSCSI software initiators to build Windows clusters out of virtual machines (VMs), unleashing Windows clustering on the large market of people who don't want to buy lots of hardware but would be happy to experiment with a less-expensive cluster "starter kit". This approach to clustering gathered so much momentum that Microsoft added support for it in Virtual Server 2005 R2 (although I don't think it's officially a supported solution).

Exchange deserves a few mentions, too. I've seen several creative applications that use public folders, including one at a large manufacturing company that has a single public folder that contains more than 200GB of documents. That's one heck of a filing system (and certainly not what the Exchange team had in mind when it designed public folder support). Of course, there are tons of third-party and custom business applications that use public folders for workflow, approval, and document-management processes; more interesting are the applications that depend on submitting mail to mail-enabled public folders because this is a simple access mechanism that doesn't require any code to submit new items. (Technically, though, this doesn't meet the "creative" part of my standard because this feature is intended to be used that way.)

The Extensible Storage Engine (ESE) backup API is intended to allow online backups of Exchange data for disaster recovery. The folks at Mimosa Systems have harnessed it in its NearPoint product to allow online replication of data to a remote server, where users can query and search it as though it were the original copy. This is a nifty trick, given that it uses only supported Microsoft APIs to provide near real-time replication; in that regard, it definitely meets the creativity bar.

Of course, these selections say nothing about the many cool tools that individual developers have written to address specific functions that Exchange and Windows don't provide (such as joeware's admodify and exchmbx tools, available from http://www.joeware.net/win/free ). I'm interested in hearing your comments about the most unusual or creative application of Exchange and Windows technologies, so drop me a line.

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