Predicting the World of Exchange in 2012

It’s normal at this time for commentators to turn their mind to what might happen in the new year. I don’t have a crystal ball but am reasonably opinionated, so here goes with my list of what I think will be the most important developments in the Exchange world for 2012.

Microsoft’s PST Capture tool will arrive early in the New Year. At least, that’s what Microsoft told us at Exchange Connections in November (they actually said “by the end of 2011” but you’d prefer them to perfect the tool before it ships). I like anything that can help eliminate PSTs and am looking forward to Microsoft’s contribution. The software vendors who currently make PST ingestion utilities might not quite share my feeling but competition drives innovation and I expect that Microsoft’s entry will enliven this area of software development.

It’s three years since Microsoft shipped Exchange 2010 and after two service packs it’s about time for a brand-new edition to arrive. The new version is codenamed Exchange 15 for now (but might be Exchange 2013 or even Exchange 8 when it ships) and is part of the grand Office Wave 15, which means that there will be a new version of Outlook too. Mind you, there’s no guarantee at all that the Office team will synchronize with Exchange’s development plans as the two teams do not have a successful record of coordinated product delivery. Perhaps this will change as all the engineers (or rather, their managers) will make a new year’s resolution to avoid the embarrassment of shipping a new release of Microsoft’s email server without the benefit of the version of Outlook that’s necessary to expose new features. More will be exposed as the beta versions of Exchange 15 appear during 2012.

Of course, Microsoft is also working hard on a new release of Windows Server and the question must be asked whether Exchange 15 run on Windows 8 Server? Or indeed, will any version of Exchange 2010 be able to run on Windows 8 Server? The second question is easier to answer as I don’t see any prospect of it happening simply because Microsoft’s preference for the last two releases of Exchange has been to have customers deploy on brand-new servers rather than the previous practice of allowing servers to be upgraded. Although Microsoft attracts a fair amount of criticism for this tactic I think it’s the right thing to do because experience tells us that upgrading servers that have been in use for a while is just plain difficult and prone to error. There’s something strangely comforting about a brand new server and the very efficient Mailbox Replication Service makes it easy to migrate mailboxes. Whether we’ll be deploying Exchange 15 on a Windows 8 Server remains a question that has no known answer at this point.

Speaking of Windows 8 Server, anyone who has listened to Jeffrey Snover talk about the importance of automation for server economics understands that the days of logging on to a Windows server to perform administrative tasks are coming to an end. PowerShell continues to gain traction and is very much at the center of Windows automation. Almost every major Microsoft server product now supports PowerShell and Windows 8 Server includes some 2,330 individual cmdlets to help administrators automate the myriad tasks that have to be performed on a regular basis. The writing is on the wall – become PowerShell literate or look for a new career. Thankfully Exchange embraced PowerShell early and the introduction of remote PowerShell in Exchange 2010 and Office 365 will make the transition easier for the Exchange community than for others who might not have gotten the message yet.

During 2012 we will see a steady migration of email services to the cloud as Office 365 absorbs millions of Exchange mailboxes from companies who have discovered that running email servers isn’t really the fun that geeks make it out to be. Most of the movement will come from small to medium companies whose needs can be very adequately met by a cloud-based service. Indeed, Kurt DelBene, President of Microsoft's Office Division noted in November that "more than 90 percent of our early Office 365 customers ... from small businesses".

I think the migration off on-premises Exchange servers will continue at a rapid pace for small to medium companies. It’s harder to budge larger companies because their needs are usually more complex and email is often integrated into other applications such as HR systems. However, a few headline companies will make the switch and you’ll hear a lot about these projects from Microsoft.

Of course, the big question that every company will debate is whether Office 365 can deliver the same kind of 99.9%+ SLA that Google has achieved with Gmail in 2010-11. After a rocky start in the August-September 2011 period, Office 365 seems to have settled down to deliver a reliable and predictable service. The sceptics won’t be satisfied until Office 365 delivers a flawless year or so of service so it will be interesting to observe how Office 365 performs over 2012.

You can confidently expect that Office 365 will be the biggest influence on Exchange 15. Microsoft will throw on-premises administrators an occasional bone (for example, the hybrid configuration wizard in Exchange 2010 SP2) but the major technical advances and the vast bulk of the engineering effort for Exchange 15 will concentrate on the cloud where Microsoft wants to improve Exchange’s ability to deliver a high-quality service for millions of mailboxes. The refocusing of effort is inevitable because the cloud platform is still relatively new and immature when compared to the nearly twenty years of development that has gone into the on-premises model. The transition to a common base that’s equally at home in the cloud or in a corporate datacenter will have some knock-on effects that will change the face of Exchange as we know it today. Such is life and I expect the eighth major version and fourth generation of Exchange to include the same mixture of delights and surprises that we’ve seen in every previous release.

All in all, there’s a lot to look forward to in 2012.

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