Review: The Microsoft platform adds many new features, but some may be redundant.
The newest version of Microsofts Exchange Server is as significant a leap forward as the two other major platforms Microsoft introduced in 2006Office 2007 and Windows Vista.
The changes to Exchange Server 2007, which became available in December, are numerous, including mobile support, integrated unified messaging, bundled anti-spam and anti-virus capabilities, a new Outlook Web Access interface, and new management tools. Nonetheless, upgrading from previous versions of the platform is not a no-brainer decisionExchange Server 2007 brings many benefits but also substantial costs.
Exchange Server 2007 is priced at $699 for the Standard Edition and $3,999 for the Enterprise Edition. A client access license costs $69 per user or device for access to standard features. Access to advanced featuresincluding unified messaging, compliance capabilities and Forefront Client Security (anti-virus and anti-spam)costs an additional $25 per user or device.
The problem with some of Exchange Server 2007s new features is that companies that need them probably already have them. For example, the compliance tools work well, but companies that need to enforce e-mail policies likely already have compliance tools in place.
Thats not to say that Exchange Server 2007 doesnt have new features that many companies will find compelling. The two most dramatic include the e-mail server platforms 64-bit architecture and management tools.
The new 64-bit architecture allows for better disk efficiency, so companies wont necessarily have to invest in large storage subsystems. Exchange Server 2007 can be deployed only in production on servers with 64-bit processors, although a 32-bit version of Exchange Server 2007 is available for testing.
On the administration front, Exchange Server 2007 has a new management interface that better organizes tasks, as well as a new scripting language for batching routine or large-volume tasks.
End users can potentially see improved access to data, depending on whether companies decide to spring for the enterprise license that allows access to the unified communications features. In addition, Exchange Server 2007 includes new features for managing calendars and out-of-office features via the Outlook 2007 client or Outlook Web Access.
Exchange Servers management console interface has been revamped with a three-panel view that streamlines common tasks.
eWeek Labs liked the new interface. It includes a well-organized tree structure on the left, a form and reporting pane in the center, and an action and filtering pane on the right. Overall, we found we had to click less when navigating the tree, and we preferred the simpler forms Exchange Server 2007 uses to manage organization details, such as users and groups. Some action items are wizard-driven, such as creating new mailboxes or users, which does force a number of clicks.
The Exchange Server 2007 management console also provides an interactive status and report element that appears after starting and completing an action. This allows administrators to easily see, for example, that they transferred a user mailbox to the right server. Of larger benefit is that the scripting code used to complete the action is displayed. Once we performed a task, we could copy the code for later use.
In addition to the basic command-line execution of tasks (based on Windows PowerShell), we were able to write scripts and answer files that performed basic tasks such as adding users and groups and moving mail files among servers. Given the potential payoff of this ability, it will be well worth it for companies to invest time and money on training Exchange Server administrators in this area.
Exchange Server 2007 also allows administrators to assign servers a particular role, including Edge Transport, Hub Transport, Mailbox, Client Access and Unified Messaging. During tests, this allowed us to segment servers according to performance and security requirements.
The Edge Transport role was the trickiest to deploy and the one that offered the least advantage during tests compared with other, well-entrenched e-mail security solutions.
Exchange Server 2007 servers deployed in the Edge Transport role act as e-mail gateways, running Microsofts Forefront Client Security anti-virus and anti-spam filtering engines on e-mail traffic. The primary disadvantage of Exchange Server 2007 acting in this role is management overhead-. E-mail- security appliance vendors, such as Secure Computing and Cisco Systems (which recently acquired IronPort Systems), ensure that appliances are hardened and updated continually for a cost comparable to the per-user costs associated with Exchange Server 2007s enterprise client access license fee.
The Hub Transport role allows a server to manage e-mail routing and enforce policies created using Exchange Server 2007s new policy management tools. These policies allowed us to establish cross-group e-mail communications policies, as well as set up retention rules for users and groups. However, companies that must strictly enforce compliance and pass audits will need to look for more robust and network-aware tools so they can manage compliance across e-mail, instant messaging, file transfer and Web site access.
The Mailbox and Client Access roles give companies a way to separate mailbox database storage and the management of client access from a range of devices and protocols, including the Outlook Web Access client and mobile phones.
The Unified Messaging role provides users with a way to access e-mail and calendars over the phone, as well as to access voice mail from within e-mail. Servers in the Unified Messaging role need to interface directly with a companys PBX or VOIP (voice over IP) network.
New user tools
Users can potentially realize a number of benefits with this new version of Exchange Server, although some of those improvements are tied to Outlook 2007.
The biggest change is the new Outlook Web Access interface, which makes it easier to manage preferences and perform routine tasks. Outlook 2003 and 2007 users will find the new interface familiar, with some changes that improve the way information is presented. For example, the calendar view now defaults to the current day in a narrow column, with details on a selected event to the right.
There are two versions of Outlook Web Access: Premium and Light. Outlook Web Access Light has a simplified user interface and reduced feature set. The Premium version requires Microsofts Internet Explorer 6.0 and above. The Light version supports Firefox, Safari and Opera, as well as pre-6.0 versions of IE.
With Outlook Web Access Premium, the calendar has seen the most useful retooling. The Scheduling Assistant feature presents a consolidated view for user and resource scheduling and response tracking. We also liked that we could schedule an out-of-office message from Outlook Web Access. (The Scheduling Assistant feature also is available through Outlook 2007.)
We could place requested meetings tentatively in the calendar, something that makes sense assuming Outlook Web Access users are traveling and might not be able to process requests before a meeting is scheduled to start. Also useful is the feature that lets out-of-date requests be set to automatically delete.
The WebReady Document Viewing tool allows companies to specify that Word, PowerPoint, Excel and PDF documents accessed through Outlook Web Access must be viewed in a browser window, instead of detached and opened using local applications.
Microsoft introduced access to Exchange Server data through mobile devices with Service Pack 2 for Exchange Server 2003, and mobile access continues to be important in Exchange Server 2007. Exchange ActiveSync is the protocol that allows compatible mobile devices to receive new or updated e-mail, calendar items, contacts and tasks.
During tests, we were able to access Exchange Server 2007 data over the Verizon Wireless network using a Motorola Q phone. (Windows Mobile-based phones natively support the ActiveSync protocol.) We especially appreciated the ability to wipe a lost or stolen phone using a tool in the options interface in Outlook Web Access.
The unified communications features in Exchange Server 2007 provide users with phone-based access to their e-mail and calendars while also allowing Exchange Server 2007with its new message life-cycle management capabilitiesto become the means of access to, and system of record for, voice mail and faxes.
Michael Caton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.