Have You Heard About Exchange Online and the Exchange Labs?

Are you concerned about problems with multitenancy or scalability with your mail hosting service, and are you wondering what Microsoft’s plans are to address these challenges? A few months ago, with very little fanfare, Microsoft made some announcements about two initiatives you might want to hear more about—Exchange Online, a strategic play to release Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 as a branded hosted enterprise messaging service, and Microsoft Exchange Labs, a new research and development program directed at college campuses and designed to test, among other things, next-generation capabilities in scalability and multitenancy.

Microsoft Exchange Online
Microsoft Exchange Online is a step along the path toward the next generation of service-aware servers with multitenancy architecture, according to John Betz, who runs an Exchange Server technical product management team at Microsoft. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard about it. The announcement of Exchange Online was easy to miss—it was part of a comprehensive Online and Live services campaign Microsoft launched last fall as part of its drive toward providing software plus services (S+S). For more information, see Microsoft Charts Its Software Services Strategy and Road Map for Businesses.

Exchange Online originally was intended exclusively as a per-user subscription service for enterprise organizations. However, just this week Exchange Online has been expanded to permit smaller businesses to take advantage of the service. For information on Bill Gates’ announcement on this expansion (which applies to other Online offerings as well), click here. The Exchange portion of the Microsoft drive toward software plus services is designed to streamline communications, simplify IT management, and maintain business-class security and reliability. For more information, see the Exchange Online Datasheet.

According to Betz, Exchange Online is phase two of an evolution toward services in a globalized economy that depends on messaging technology that’s always available. Phase one was MMS, now known as Microsoft Online, where an on-premises solution can be hosted on behalf of software customers. During phase two, the current phase, Microsoft intends to become more efficient at running multiple customers on a single deployment. According to Betz, the current servers weren’t designed to handle multitenancy. So mulitenancy is being simulated by building technology around the servers that lets Exchange run many customers on one deployment.

The goal for phase three is to deliver high-scale, multitenant services, with Exchange as the back end. Information gleaned in the Exchange Labs, discussed later in this article, is helping to fuel this phase. Phase four is the comprehensive Microsoft solution—a common services environment where complementary Microsoft technologies can be used as building blocks. To reach this goal, the company plans to double its investment in data centers. Currently the company has nine; the goal is to have 18 by 2009.

Microsoft Exchange Labs
The Exchange Labs program is Microsoft’s sandbox for gaining insight into the future of Exchange. The Exchange Labs were announced the same day as Exchange Online. Enterprises can’t directly participate or have access to the information; the Labs are exclusively for college students (and dog food for the Exchange team itself). However, if you’re an alumnus or alumna of a college participating in the program, you should be able to join. It’s not a beta program; it’s not a Technology Adoption Program (TAP) for early adopter organizations; it’s a research and development exercise by the Exchange team, designed to get feedback quickly on new features and functionality building on Exchange 2007. Information gleaned in the Labs will help Microsoft build the next generation of Exchange for the S+S ecosystem. Ed Banti, a technical product manager on the Exchange Server Marketing team, said that Microsoft hopes to grow the Exchange Labs program to over 3 million college users to test scalability and multitenancy. The plan is for Microsoft to eventually push out what it learns in the Exchange Labs to benefit hosting partners and organizations doing on-premises deployment and to lower total cost of ownership (TCO).

Exchange Labs are a part of the broader Windows [email protected] program, which offers college students on participating campuses Windows Live HotMail and other Windows Live Services (such as Windows Live Workspace and Windows Live Messenger). For more information about Windows [email protected], click here. Students who choose to participate in Exchange Labs will be supplying Microsoft with feedback about new functionality, and they'll also get an opportunity to take advantage of software and services they might be using in the workplace after graduation. Microsoft receives input from trendy young users and the students get to influence the direction of Exchange as end-users. Ed Banti said that “This environment that we’re building with the Exchange Labs we feel will be commonplace in five years.” Unfortunately for students with an interest in Exchange administration, Microsoft has no plans to allow direct student administration of the Exchange Labs.

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