Late last week, Microsoft made an announcement that has many Exchange Server administrators fuming. The new Exchange Intelligent Message Filter, expected to ship later this year, will be available only to customers enrolled in Microsoft's Software Assurance (SA) program. On the face of it, this decision might seem shortsighted on Microsoft's part; after all, wouldn't the company want to sell its products to anyone who wants to buy them? However, from a long-term strategic point, the decision makes good sense for customers and for Microsoft.
First, let's take a look at the customer side. Until I started researching this article, I misunderstood the way SA works, and I suspect this misunderstanding is common. SA enrollments last for 3 years, and your licensing costs are spread across a 3-year term. This makes those costs predictable (you know now what you'll have to pay in years 2 and 3) and more manageable (you can pay for your software over time, just as you would when paying for a car, an office building, or a liver transplant). Depending on how many licenses you buy and for what products, your licensing costs might be substantially lower than paying the retail price, too. In fact, right now Microsoft is offering cash rebates for SA enrollments that include Microsoft Office 2003 and will let employees of companies that enroll in SA for Office 2003 legally use that software at home.
Another customer benefit is version upgrades. When you're enrolled in SA, you get free upgrades to products you've purchased during the SA lifetime. This benefit is more valuable at some times and for some products. For example, if you enroll in SA now and Microsoft meets the widely rumored 2006 ship date for Longhorn, you'll get it for free; if you enrolled in SA in 2002, you won't. Because Microsoft is generally quite coy about release dates for new versions of Windows and Exchange, predicting whether buying SA now will get you the next version of Exchange for free is difficult. SA includes a number of other benefits, though, as described in Microsoft's Software Assurance for Volume Licensing site ( http://www.microsoft.com/licensing/programs/sa ). Among these benefits is the very cool Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE)--which I'll write about in a future UPDATE--and (with some SA levels) enterprise support from Microsoft Product Support Services (PSS).
What about the Microsoft perspective? Obviously the company likes the idea of a predictable revenue stream, which SA delivers and which gives Microsoft a way to predict year-over-year revenue for products that SA covers. SA also delivers a competitive advantage because companies in the SA program are less likely to ditch their investment and switch platforms, even if only on the back end.
That brings us to the Intelligent Message Filter. Customers who are enrolled in SA for Exchange Server 2003 get one free Intelligent Message Filter license for each Exchange 2003 server license-—a significant bonus when you compare the cost of third-party spam-filtering products. Clearly Microsoft sees the value of making SA more attractive by tying the program to server-related freebies, and I suspect this trend will continue. Although I'd like to see the Intelligent Message Filter unbundled and sold as a separate product, I suspect that Microsoft has decided that the marginal revenue it would get from doing so is small compared with the dual benefits of making SA more attractive and not antagonizing Microsoft's existing antispam partners.
SA certainly offers some attractive benefits, but evaluate the program as another option-—not the only option-—for buying your Exchange licenses. Check out the SA site to get a better idea of which program benefits are of most value to you, and compare the SA cost with the cost of buying standalone licenses for the products you need to use.