Exchange 2010 SP2 makes its debut

It’s taken a while coming but Microsoft has just released Service Pack 2 (SP2) for Exchange 2010. You can download the new bits from the Microsoft Download Center.

It might seem that Microsoft has taken its time in releasing SP2. That feeling is true, but the delay is for good reason. As promised by General Manager Kevin Allison during his keynote at last month’s Exchange Connections conference, enormous care and attention has been dedicated by Microsoft to make sure that SP2 is high quality and doesn’t suffer from any of the issues that afflicted two of the roll-up update (RU) releases for SP1 that appeared earlier this year.

In addition, one of the key new features in SP2 is the hybrid configuration wizard (HCW), which is designed to automate the setup of hybrid connectivity between an on-premises Exchange 2010 organization and Exchange Online running in Office 365. Up to now, administrators have had to tweak Exchange settings manually to configure this connectivity and the intention is that HCW will do all the heavy lifting and take care of as many steps as possible. However, hybrid configurations are not always simple and Microsoft has done a lot of work to chase down edge cases that exhibit particular characteristics so that the HCW can handle these situations. This effort has required time to understand and solve the problems that occur in certain environments and so has slowed down the release of SP2. It’s much better to have a high-quality functional release so it’s good that Microsoft has taken the time to do the work to sort HCW. 

Apart from the HCW, the other new SP2 feature that has received a lot of attention is the introduction of Address Book Policies (ABPs), essentially an answer to the demand that hosting providers and some large companies have been making of Microsoft to be able to segment their Global Address List (GAL) into sections that can be assigned to different users rather than allowing users to see the complete GAL. There have been other solutions to this problem in the past but all were kludges rather than designed into the product. ABPs allow administrators to construct filters (think LDAP) that select different objects from the overall GAL to build a customized address book, which is then assigned to mailboxes by policy. Many different ABPs can function in a single Exchange organization, each creating a unique view on the GAL. Once an ABP is assigned to a mailbox, the user who connects to the mailbox can only see and address objects found in the view created by the ABP. It’s a very effective method that should really have been incorporated into Exchange a long time ago.

ABPs depend on the Active Directory and Microsoft provides a schema update to add the necessary definitions to make ABPs available to Exchange and to assign the policies to mailboxes. Some other housekeeping is done through the schema update such as extending the set of customized attributes available for objects and adding company and department attributes to distribution groups and contacts. The cmdlets that manipulate these objects haven’t yet been updated to take advantage of the new schema but this work will be done in the future.

Schema updates provoke odd reactions in some people. Those who have been administrators in the early days of Active Directory treat schema updates with caution. Others who don’t remember the fuss and bother that schema updates used to generate in the days when domain controllers were not connected together with the reliable networks that we now enjoy don't worry so much and slap in updates as the need requires. Whatever your situation, you’ll have to apply the schema update in any Active Directory forest where you want to deploy Exchange 2010 SP2.

The remaining new features in SP2 are unlikely to cause much of a fuss. For example, the reintroduction of Outlook Mobile Access (OMA) will bring joy to owners of mobile phones with small screens that don’t support email clients based on ActiveSync (Windows Phone, iPhone, iPad, Android…). However, the majority of such devices are found in markets like Japan where many of the phones produced for the local market are much smaller than the devices sold in the US. Although the relative paucity of new features in SP2 (when compared to the blast of updates delivered in SP1) might disappoint, it’s a natural side-effect of two influences. First, two and a half years after it was introduced, Exchange 2010 is now in the last phase of its development cycle as Microsoft is focusing on new versions. Second, the need to make Exchange Online run in a highly automated and reliable manner within Office 365 has definitely taken engineering resources away from development of the on-premises edition. Such is life.

Overall, it’s good to see Exchange 2010 SP2 appear and customers should prepare for a deployment – after they have had the chance to run their own comprehensive test to ensure that SP2 deployment won’t cause any side-effects inside a particular environment.

In passing,let me also point you towards a diagram of Exchange 2010 network ports drawn up by Michel de Rooij. Recommended!

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