Microsoft Ships Exchange 12 Beta 1 to Limited Test Group

Last week, Microsoft shipped the first beta version of Microsoft Exchange 12, the company's next-generation email and messaging server, to a limited group of beta testers. There's been a bit of controversy surrounding Exchange 12 lately, largely because Microsoft has opted to ship the product in only 64-bit x64 versions, eschewing more common 32-bit x86 hardware for a better performing platform. Controversies aside, Exchange 12 looks solid, though few customers will have a chance to test it until Beta 2.

According to Megan Kidd, the senior product manager for Exchange, Microsoft is shipping Exchange 12 Beta 1 code to about 1400 beta participants, a group that is made up of the company's customers, OEMs, and ISVs. Beta 1 includes just a small subset of the features Microsoft expects to make available by the final release, which is now due in late 2006 or early 2007, a slight adjustment from previous late 2006 declarations. If you're interested in testing Exchange 12, however, Kidd told me that a second beta release, due by mid-2006, will be open to a much wider group of customers. Also, Exchange 12 isn't the final name for the product, of course. Microsoft will announce branding "in the near future," I was told.

As far as Beta 1 is concerned, Microsoft has made several improvements compared with today's Exchange Server 2003 with Service Pack 2 (SP2). First, and perhaps most important, the product has been redesigned around a roles-based infrastructure. This is similar to what the company has already done with Windows Server--and is doing so in a much more granular way in Longhorn Server as well. Consider how important this new infrastructure is. In the past, if you installed a product such as Exchange Server (or Windows Server), you needed to understand exactly which components had to be installed to perform certain tasks. Then, you had to configure those tasks correctly for them to function and do so securely.

In Windows Server 2003 (and R2), the roles-based administration features let administrators install (and remove) server roles that define how the server behaves. Each of these roles, in turn, installs whatever low-level components are needed, configures them in the securest possible manner, and then points you to subsequent configuration steps, when required. In Exchange 12, as with Longhorn Server, the product has actually been built from the ground up in a componentized nature. So when you configure an Exchange 12 server for a specific role, only those features are installed. That means your system isn't needlessly bogged down with code that might have to be patched, even when those features aren't needed for the current configuration.

Exchange 12 will support several roles, which you can add or remove as needs change. The Edge Transport role is installed on SMTP gateway servers that sit inside your demilitarized zone (DMZ). The Hub Transport role is installed on systems that sit inside your network, acting as a bridgehead through which all messages are routed. The Mailbox Server, naturally, holds the Exchange data store. The Client Access Server role supports Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA), Outlook connectivity via remote procedure call (RPC) over HTTP, IMAP, POP3, and Web services. And the Unified Messaging role supports Exchange 12's new unified messaging services, which lets Exchange users access VoIP calls, PBX-based voice messages, fax, and voice mail alongside standard Exchange mail messages.

Exchange 12 is managed through a completely rewritten Exchange System Manager (ESM), which is now just a front-end to features that are natively exposed through Exchange's pervasive command-line shell. Dubbed the Exchange Management Shell (EMS) and based on Microsoft's Monad command-line environment, this new command-line shell can be used to monitor, manage, and automate Exchange 12 in real time. And for Microsoft experts unused to such a concept, consider this little bit of revolution: ESM offers only a subset of the features made available via EMS. That's right--the command line does more than the GUI. I believe this is a first for any Microsoft product.

The command-line features are fully scriptable and bring obvious benefits. For example, if you need to provision 100 new mailboxes to accommodate new employees, you can automate that task. You can create Microsoft .NET-based commandlets with the EMS that take advantage of unique Exchange functionality, and Microsoft expects--as do I--that a community will spring up offering useful Exchange 12 commandlets online.

Exchange 12's unified messaging features will provide access to voice mail and faxes in the same folder views as your email. And these communications will be available from any Exchange client, including OWA or various compatible mobile devices. Exchange 12 will also support an interesting phone-based interface that will let users call the unified messaging server on a standard phone system and interact with the server using speech recognition and a touch-tone phone. "There are things like this for Exchange today, but they tend to be expensive add- ons," Jeff Ressler, the director of Exchange product planning told me in a recent briefing. "Now we're providing this functionality in Exchange 12 as a core feature. You won't need to install Speech Server, it's just part of Exchange."

There are numerous other features in Exchange 12 Beta 1. The OWA client has been dramatically improved to closely resemble the Outlook 12 client and adds a new Scheduling Assistant. Outlook 12 will include a new auto-detection and auto-configuration feature that will help it connect to the correct Exchange server with just your email address information. The antivirus and antispam features from Exchange 2003 SP2 have been updated and improved, and there's a new low-level API for third-party developers that want to build on top of Exchange 12.

Overall, Exchange 12 looks solid, and now that Microsoft is finally shipping code to some users, it's only a matter of time before we see an even more feature-complete version. It's always wise to plan for Exchange deployments well in advance, but this release looks particularly promising, assuming you don't balk at its x64 requirements.

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