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Exchange Server 2003 SP2 Delivers New Features Without the Cost

While Microsoft continues its inconsistent approach to service pack releases--some are minor releases that simply aggregate previous bug fixes, whereas others add major new features--the company's recent shipment of Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2) should be generally well received by customers. Like XP SP2, Exchange 2003 SP2 is a major update that adds major new features, especially for mobile users. If you're holding out for the next version of Exchange, SP2 might not offer enough impetus to switch now, but for existing Exchange 2003 customers, SP2 is a major step forward.

In my talks with Microsoft, the company stressed that although Exchange 2003 went a long way toward letting organizations shrink their IT budgets through server consolidation, the product still has some lingering pain points. And with Exchange 12 now expected to ship in late 2006, Exchange 2003 SP2 seemed like the logical time to implement some upgrades. (Hey, the company could have done an R2 release at additional cost to existing customers.)

Much has changed with SP2. First, Microsoft has raised the mailbox storage size limit in Exchange 2003 Standard Edition (and the version bundled with Windows Small Business Server--SBS--2003) from 16GB to 75GB. This change addresses a huge customer concern: Email usage has far outpaced the hard limits Microsoft originally programmed into Exchange. (On a related note, you can configure both Standard and Enterprise editions to grow to only a certain size, preventing runaway data store growth.)

For the average Exchange 2003 user, the biggest change involves the performance of the Offline Address Book (OAB). Now, using the OAB in cached mode will result in fewer instances in which the full OAB needs to be downloaded, thanks to a variety of under-the-hood improvements. However, to get this functionality, you'll need to update Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 clients to the recently released Office 2003 SP2 update.

Administrators will find managing public folders easier with SP2. Public folder deletions are now logged, so you can easily find out who did what (and when). Administrators can halt public folder replication midstream to prevent "replication storms," which occur when an administrator accidentally triggers a bandwidth-heavy replication action. SP2 also bundles a new version of the Exchange Intelligent Message Filter (IMF) into Exchange; it's no longer an additional download. And, for the first time, Exchange now gets basic antiphishing technology.

In SP2, you can also configure individual users for Outlook Web Access (OWA)-only by turning off Messaging API (MAPI) support, thereby preventing them from using the Outlook client software. This functionality will be a boon to hosting companies, of course, but also for corporations that want to keep costs down by restricting certain users to OWA. For users with Outlook, administrators can now force cached-mode connections from the server, which makes for better performance over low-bandwidth connections.

Administrators can also remotely wipe out sensitive data on lost or stolen mobile devices using a new feature imaginatively titled Remote Wipe. This feature requires a device with the latest version of Windows Mobile.

SP2 has a host of other mobility-related enhancements as well. Mobile users can now remotely access the Global Address List (GAL) and can synchronize tasks over the air (previous versions supported only Inbox, Calendar, and Contacts synchronization over the air). Administrators also can create secure policies for mobile devices that enable options such as require device passwords.

Microsoft and Palm recently unveiled a new version of the Treo smartphone, based on Windows Mobile technology, which will include BlackBerrry-like over-the-air synchronization with the server. SP2 includes the server-side piece that enables this functionality, which Microsoft calls Direct Push. Essentially, Direct Push keeps a connection between the mobile client and the server open, allowing the server to push notifications about server-side changes to the client. The client then automatically initiates a request to synchronize, resulting in a near-instantaneous update. What's important about this capability is that it comes without any subscription costs or need to install and manage an additional server product. Because this feature is now built into Exchange, mobile access to email will likely grow dramatically over the next few years.

Overall, Exchange 2003 SP2 looks like a huge upgrade, and one that all Exchange 2003 customers should evaluate. It's still a bit early to ascertain how successful the upgrade experience is, but early reports are positive. I have much more to say about SP2 and some Exchange 12 developments to discuss soon as well. But in the meantime, you can find out more and grab the Exchange 2003 SP2 download from the Microsoft Web site.

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