In the last week or two, we've seen the start of what I like to think of as the Exchange "event season." The computer and technology world has a variety of events, ranging from the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3--at which Microsoft is rumored to be announcing the successor to the Xbox) to Lotusphere to COMDEX to the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) conference. Most of us can't possibly go to every interesting technical conference; unless you have an immense appetite for airline food, a fat travel budget, and a high tolerance for darkened rooms full of strangers, you'll probably hit only the conferences that are most relevant to your job requirements or learning needs. (Personally, I really want to go to E3, but I don't think that's going to happen.)
In the old days, only one event mattered to Exchange administrators, architects, and developers: the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC). My first MEC was in 1998, and the quality and quantity of Exchange-focused sessions blew me away. As Microsoft added other collaboration products and technologies, however, the conference lost its Exchange-only focus, and the company eventually decided to roll Exchange-specific content into Microsoft TechEd, its flagship conference for IT professionals (which, in Microsoft argot, includes administrators, developers, and system architects and designers).
TechEd 2005 ( http://www.msteched.com ), which will be held in Orlando, Florida, June 5-10, promises more than 400 sessions organized into 16 tracks. The messaging track has about 40 Exchange sessions as of today, although I expect that number to rise somewhat as Microsoft collects feedback from the community (see http://blogs.msdn.com/exchange/archive/2005/02/17/375383.aspx if you want to leave your own feedback). These numbers are a little misleading, however, because many of the sessions in other tracks (such as the security and portal tracks) would have been presented at MEC in the past.
Windows IT Pro saw an opportunity in MEC's demise and launched the Exchange Connections conference. This year's conference will be held in San Diego, California, from October 30-November 2 (an ideal time to visit San Diego, by the way). Whereas TechEd tries to cover the entire spectrum of Microsoft's server and OS technologies, from ASP.NET to Windows deployment planning, Exchange Connections concentrates on collaboration and communications technologies such as Exchange, Microsoft Office, Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server, and Microsoft Office Live Communications Server. The final list of sessions is still being assembled (please email me if you have topics you'd like to see included), but in past years the conference has concentrated on sessions that cover specific Exchange functional areas, such as antispam technology, mobility, and security. Microsoft is providing several speakers, but the ultimate choice of sessions is up to the conference panel, so we have more flexibility to talk about problems and solutions that don't neatly fit into TechEd's track structure.
How do you choose which conference to attend? Each show has its advantages and drawbacks. TechEd is like a huge buffet of technical information about Microsoft products. You can choose exactly the combination of sessions you're interested in from a broad range of topics. Because TechEd is a Microsoft conference, it's also the best place to get the official party line on best practices and future development of Microsoft technologies. TechEd is also the best place to directly engage the Exchange product and support team, because many of the developers, product managers, and support engineers either give presentations or work in the "ask the experts" cabana area. The sheer number of sessions can be a little overwhelming, however, as can the number of attendees; imagine walking around the Atlanta airport during peak travel hours for 5 days in a row, and you get the idea.
If TechEd is a huge buffet, Exchange Connections is more like the small corner restaurant where the staff recognizes you when you walk in. It's smaller, quieter, and less rushed. Because it's smaller and more focused, the presenters and attendees tend to have more direct engagement. The Exchange Connections presenter list draws more heavily on the broad Exchange community, with fewer Microsoft speakers and more consultants and MVPs. This year, because Exchange Connections falls after TechEd, Exchange Connections will probably have more Exchange 12 information than TechEd will. According to past conference attendees, the mix of how-to and architectural sessions is especially useful.
The bottom line is that both conferences offer unique advantages. If you can arrange and afford it, you'll get the maximum benefit from attending both conferences. Both Microsoft and Windows IT Pro offer early registration discounts, so start making your travel plans!