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Exchange 12 Shows Promise, Peril of x64 Transition

Back in December, Microsoft shipped the first beta for Exchange 12 (sometimes called E12 internally and a codename) of its next messaging server. Since then, the company has been gathering feedback and preparing for the next major beta. Since it's been three months since I last looked at E12, I thought this would be a good time to get an update. So last week, I discussed the product with various people on the Exchange team, talked about the E12 timeline, and walked through some key E12 features.

Though it's clearly an impressive release, Exchange 12 isn't without controversy. Late last year, Microsoft decided that it would ship the product only for 64-bit x64 versions of Windows Server, and not for the 32-bit systems that dominate today's businesses. Microsoft has valid if self-serving reasons for this decision, but my gut feeling is that a 32-bit E12 version wouldn't provide the consolidation and performance benefits needed for a such an important upgrade, and by limiting the server to x64, Microsoft can overcome this problem.

At issue, of course, is memory. 32-bit systems can only access 4 GB of RAM, and Exchange 12 needs more than that for larger installations. In my recent briefing, Microsoft noted that the benefits of running on x64 would result in a 70 percent I/O reduction, according to their internal tests. But this result isn't based on a comparison of identical 32-bit and 64-bit systems; though the hardware used in each case is the same, the x64 system had much more memory. That, and x64-specific optimizations, make E12 perform better on x64.

Once you get over the need to upgrade to an x64 version of Windows Server 2003 R2, which will be the mainstream Windows Server version when E12 ships, you'll be pleased to know that this upgrade will at least allow you to consolidate servers. With the additional memory capacity, you can serve far more users or utilize much larger mailboxes, or both.

And the functional improvements in E12 are impressive. As noted previously, the new Exchange System Manager (ESM) GUI is completely redesigned and far less complicated than the current version. But most interesting, the ESM is actually just a front-end to the Exchange Management Shell (EMS), based on Microsoft's Monad command line environment. That's right. E12 is built just like a UNIX server.

The point here is that everything Exchange 12 can do is exposed via EMS commands, which can be programmatically accessed directly from the command line, through scripts and commandlets, or via an application or service written in a managed programming language like C# or Visual Basic. This means that administrators can easily automate tasks, like adding groups of new users to both Active Directory (AD) and Exchange. But it also means that in-house development staff can write very specific applications that let IT admins or power users perform only certain E12-related tasks. With E12 Beta 1, the only EMS documentation is in online help, but by mid-year, the company expects to have more and better documentation, as well as plenty of example scripts and other related tools. This is powerful stuff.

Another highlight is the E12 version of Outlook Web Access (OWA), which is virtually identical to the Outlook 12 client application in both form and function. OWA 12, as I'll call it, integrates neatly with E12-specific functionality. So if you use the Unified Messaging (UM) features in E12 to consolidate email, fax, and voice mail into users' mailboxes, they'll be able to listen to voice mail via OWA using an embedded media player control, and even forward private or sensitive calls to actual phone numbers (such as a private line or cell phone) so they won't bother cubical mates. Neat.

Microsoft is also significantly enhancing E12's handling of calendar items so that more information is stored on the server, rather than on various clients. This has a number of positive ramifications. First, scheduling information like free/busy time and even meeting room and other resource availability can now be stored on the server. So when you invite someone to a meeting, you'll known immediately if they can make it, even if they're away on vacation, as their calendar will show that they're tentatively scheduled to attend. And you'll even know where the meeting will be held, since you'll have each meeting room's availability at your fingertips as well. These features, incidentally, work as well from OWA as they do from Outlook 12.

Speaking of Outlook 12, this upcoming new Outlook version will ease new installs and server failovers with its new AutoConnect feature. Now, you will simply need to supply your name, password, and email address, and Outlook 12 will automatically configure itself for the correct Exchange server. Compare that to the current situation, where the user must know the server name in advance, and then step through a connection process. Additionally, this feature is handy if an Exchange Server fails over. Now, Outlook 12 will simply connect to the new server, with no configuration change required.

Regarding the E12 timeline, the current Beta 1 release is available only via a private beta program to just 1400 participants. But a future beta release, due by mid-year, will open up E12 to the public, so everyone can get their hands on this product. Microsoft still expects to ship E12 in late 2006 or early 2007.

This article originally appeared in the February 28, 2006 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.

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