Over the last three years, the world of e-mail and Internet communications has changed quite a bit. The growth of cloud-based services and Web-based messaging solutions, most notably Google Gmail, has changed the way people and businesses (especially small businesses) look at messaging.
But while small businesses have started to move to services such as Gmail to handle their e-mail needs, large corporations still need enterprise-class messaging systems that can tie into company applications, provide high levels of security, and allow businesses to fulfill data retention and compliance directives.
This is the challenge that Microsoft faces in putting together the first new version of its messaging and communications platform since Exchange Server 2007 was released in 2006. The next version of Exchange needs to work well in the new more distributed, cloud-based and mobile world of messaging while also providing the core capabilities that enterprises need.
Based on eWEEK Labs' tests of the first beta of Exchange Server 2010 (the final version is scheduled to ship by the end of this year), it looks as though Microsoft is well on its way to balancing these requirements.
While there aren't a lot of ground-breaking new features in Exchange Server 2010, there are many welcome improvements that go a long way toward addressing the shortcomings of the previous versions. In particular, the beta of Exchange Server 2010 offers features for businesses looking to leverage the advantages of both hosted and internal mail systems, for companies looking to cut some of the more needless help desk costs associated with managing Exchange, and for end users who don't use Microsoft operating systems or Web browsers.
For most end users, the biggest and most notable differences with Exchange Server 2010 will be in the much improved Outlook Web Access Webmail client. The most welcome of these new features is that the Webmail client now works pretty much identically for users of Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari Web browsers as it does for users of Microsoft's own Internet Explorer. For instance, instead of having to deal with checkboxes and next screen arrows, users of Firefox and Safari can scroll down to view an entire page of messages, access right mouse button menus and have much of the same functionality as one gets from the full Outlook client.
In general, the Outlook Web Access client behaves much more like a full Outlook client, offering everything from pop-up tips (for example, when a message is too large) to suggested contacts when entering a name.
For businesses, the most welcome new capabilities in the Webmail client are those designed to help businesses delegate administrative tasks and provide users with more self-help options to cut down on help desk calls.
Clicking on the Options link in the Outlook Web Access client brings up the Web-based Exchange Control Panel. From here, users can carry out standard self-service tasks such as updating contact information and defining in-box rules. The Control Panel also offers access to more powerful features, including the option for users to create their own custom public distribution groups without the need to contact the IT staff, or to track the delivery status of their messages. Depending on the role given a user by administrators, end users can also use this feature to control public company mailing lists.
In addition, this interface can take advantage of new roles capabilities in Exchange Server 2010 to let administrators delegate capabilities to end users. Most interesting of these is the ability to quickly enable multiple mailbox searches, letting, for example, an HR or compliance officer quickly search for information across several mailboxes. Almost any capability accessed through the Exchange Control Panel can be turned on and off for specific users through the use of these roles.
On the administration side, like previous versions, Exchange Server 2010 still uses a standard Microsoft Management Console interface for the majority of management tasks. However, there is a greater use of tools such as wizards to ease the configuration of many common Exchange settings.
The Exchange Federation Gateway feature makes it possible for organizations to share Exchange data easily across their implementations or through a hosted Exchange Online system. For example, administrators can share live calendars across two different partner companies to smooth meeting scheduling.
Moving user mailboxes has been greatly streamlined and, in tests, user mailboxes could be moved quickly with limited disruption to end-user access.
With the Database Availability groups feature, I was able to easily configure database replication services to multiple servers, including off-site servers. In basic tests after bringing down a database server, the server seamlessly automatically recovered with no loss of messages.
Using the Transport Protection Rules, it was possible within the administration interface to create customized rules to control how specific messages could be routed within an organization-for example, applying "no forwarding" rules to specific messages. This feature could also be tied to Windows Rights Management Services to provide deeper DRM-style controls over some messages.
The beta of Exchange Server 2010 also has a number of under-the-covers changes that increase the stability of Exchange and make it easier to use in a variety of organizations. These include the ability to work better with non-SAN storage infrastructures that utilize standard direct-attached disks.
Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at email@example.com.