Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 is a far cry from Exchange Server 2003, based on eWeek Labs tests of the first public beta of the new messaging platform. Administrators thinking of moving to Exchange Server 2007 should take a hard look at this beta to understand the impact of the platforms many new features.
Exchange Server 2007 Beta 2 became widely available on July 24 and is expected to ship in its final form at the end of this year or the beginning of 2007. Theres no huge rush to evaluate the beta, but dont wait too long—our tests show that getting a full sense of the capabilities and requirements will take time and training.
Exchange Server 2007 Beta 2 includes several architectural changes. The product will be available for production deployment using only the 64-bit version of the software, so 64-bit-capable servers are a must. (A 32-bit version of Exchange Server 2007 Beta 2 is available for companies that want to test the software without tying up a 64-bit system.)
This beta also includes unified messaging capabilities with an embedded version of Microsofts Speech Server, allowing users to access their mailboxes and calendars from a phone as well as their voice mail from their e-mail client (provided their company has an IP PBX or VOIP gateway).
Finally, the work Microsoft began with Exchange Server 2003 in terms of supporting multiple Exchange servers acting in different roles has been expanded in this release. These new roles allow companies to configure Exchange servers to work at the gateway level, as well as to segment servers by function, such as unified messaging.
From the client side, we liked the most obvious change in this beta: the retooled Outlook Web Access interface, which includes several significant improvements that streamline common tasks and bring useful information to the foreground. The new interface also makes it easier to manage preferences.
The interface looks more like Outlook 2003 than the previous version of the Web client did, with a couple of nice additions. For example, rather than annoying the user with pop-ups for events and tasks, the new interface has a pop-down view of reminders in the main e-mail view. Thankfully, we could collapse this view rather than have to snooze or dismiss dozens of reminders, as you have to do with the current version.
The forthcoming Outlook 2007 is quite different from this version of Outlook Web Access or Outlook 2003 because of its new ribbon interface, so companies upgrading to both Office 2007 and Exchange Server 2007 will have twice the training issues. Theres good synergy between Outlook 2007 and Exchange Server 2007, however, including a feature that lets users easily connect to their Exchange mailboxes without help from IT.
We liked Outlook Web Access new Calendar view, which defaults to the current day in a narrow column with details on selected events to the right. In fact, the Calendar has been the feature retooled the most—and the most usefully. The greatest benefit is the improved ease with which users can coordinate meetings through a view that consolidates "accept" and "decline" responses from attendees and resources.
We also appreciated being able to automatically place a requested meeting in the Calendar as a tentative item, something that makes sense assuming Outlook Web Access users are traveling and might not be able to process requests. Also helpful is Outlook Web Access ability to delete out-of-date requests automatically.
Thematically, Microsoft is pushing the idea of anywhere access to Exchange data, and access from Windows Mobile-based devices is a big part of it. Wed have liked to have seen support for other mobile platforms, but, with Exchange Server 2007, companies will have the ability to synchronize their users e-mail, Calendars, Contacts and Tasks with Windows Mobile devices and non-Windows Mobile devices with a licensed version of ActiveSync.
To test this capability, we used Exchange and the ActiveSync application on a Windows Mobile-based phone over Cingular Wireless network. We had no problem transferring information, but we did notice a 2-minute lag between the time a user sent a message from Outlook Web Access and the time that synchronization from the mobile phone successfully brought down the message.
On a related note, users can remotely wipe a lost or stolen phone using a tool in the Options interface in Outlook Web Access.
The other part of the anywhere-access push in Exchange Server 2007 is the products unified messaging features. Unified messaging provides users with phone-based access to their e-mail and Calendars, while also allowing Exchange—with its new message life-cycle management features—to become the means of access to (and the system of record for) voice mail. Speech Server is the engine that drives user access and manipulation of e-mail and Calendars.
Frankly, however, were not sure that many companies will bite. Unified messaging hasnt exactly been an unqualified success, largely because accessing text-based data from a phone is cumbersome, even with speech recognition. The ubiquity of wire-line and wireless Internet access, as well as dropping prices on mobile clients, will likely push voice access of messaging data further to the fringe. However, Microsoft may be able to successfully drive to zero the per-port license fees that PBX vendors charge for voice mail-to-e-mail integration.
Managing It All
On the administrative side, the Exchange MMC (Microsoft Management Console) interface has been revamped to streamline common tasks, and Exchange has a new command-line interface based on Windows Power-Shell (formerly code-named Monad) that should improve the efficiency with which administrators execute common management tasks.
The MMC interface now organizes management across three panes—a better-organized tree structure on the left, a form and reporting pane in the center, and an action and filtering pane on the right (see screen, Page 33). We found the net result to be fewer clicks when navigating the tree and simpler forms when it came to managing organization details, such as users and groups. How cluttered this interface will end up when Microsoft Office Live Communications Server and other server-based tools extend the Active Directory schema remains to be seen, however.
Companies that have to seriously enforce compliance and pass audits will need to look for more robust and network-aware applications, such as Orchestrias Active Policy Management, but Exchange now has adequate tools for creating some basic e-mail policies. We were able to establish cross-group e-mail Exchange policies as well as set up retention rules for users and groups.
The MMC feature that we immediately appreciated the most, however, is the interactive status and report element that appears after starting and completing an action. At minimum, it gives an administrator an easy way to see that he or she transferred a user mailbox to the right server.
The Exchange Management Shell is a much-needed addition and one that will simplify and speed many routine and repetitive tasks. In addition to the basic command-line execution of tasks, the Exchange Management Shell supports scripting, which allowed us to write scripts and answer files that performed basic tasks such as adding users and managing groups. Microsoft has a group of sample scripts available on TechNet that will give administrators a sense of the Exchange Management Shells scripting capabilities and syntax.
Roles of a Lifetime
One of the first things administrators will notice when installing Exchange Server 2007 is the ability to segment it according to server roles, such as Bridgehead, Client Access or Unified Messaging.
One role, the Edge Transport server role, is designed to serve as an e-mail preprocessing server for filtering spam and viruses.
Microsoft officials have talked about companies deploying servers with this role at the network edge, which has the one benefit of providing a way for end users to leverage their Outlook Safe Senders list at the filtering layer. However, wed be cautious about running Exchange on the perimeter given Microsofts poor track record at providing timely security updates and an overwhelming volume of malicious e-mail aimed at the Exchange platform.
We think Exchange needs to be behind a gateway appliance running a hardened operating system. Indeed, some gateway appliance vendors have such a broad view of e-mail traffic that they have the ability to diagnose attacks and propagate rules to appliances well in advance of anti-virus vendors.
Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IBMs IBM Lotus Domino
Enterprise groupware with database-driven applications (www.ibm.com)
Open-Xchanges Open-Xchange Server
Includes additional collaboration tools to help teams with project, document and knowledge management (www.open-xchange.com)
Scalixs Scalix Server
Brings good Exchange and Outlook feature fidelity to Linux and Outlook users, with an excellent Web-mail interface (www.scalix.com)
Sun Microsystems Java Enterprise System Collaboration Suite
Offers good integration of instant messaging with e-mail and calendar tools (www.sun.com)