Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., is talking to Exchange user groups around the country as well as giving a series of Web seminars on a range of topics related to Exchange 12, which is due in 2007.
These Web seminar topics include the improved Exchange Systems Manager, recipient management and permissions, and the management shell and scripting.
Attendees at some of those presentations report that there is both good and bad with regard to Exchange 12. On the positive side, they point to the new unified messaging technologies like the Outlook voice access and the integration to telephone systems. "This is very hot and very neat stuff," one attendee who asked not to be identified told eWEEK.
The Exchange team is also showing the new version of Outlook Web Access, and those who have seen it say they are impressed, not only by its richness but by its similarity in many ways to Outlook 12. The changes to the out-of-office assistant also make it a lot better, they say.
Another interesting feature in Exchange 12 is proxy access to SharePoint and file shares through Outlook Web Access. This allows users to click on a link in Outlook Web access from, say, a browser in a kiosk. The link will be a UNC share and Outlook Web Access will allow proxy access to that file from a Web browser.
But the down side is that there is no longer a user interface in Outlook Web Access to access public folders.
"So you have this great new feature [with which] to access all of your SharePoint content and file shares, but all of your public folders stored on Outlook 2003 or Outlook 2000 or Exchange 2000 or Exchange 2003 cannot be accessed through the Exchange 12 Outlook Web Access interface anymore," a user who has seen the feature told eWEEK.
Jeff Ressler, Microsofts director of product planning for Exchange, agreed that there is currently no way for users to access public folders from Outlook Web Access in Exchange 12. "But adding that capability to the product is actually on our list for feature consideration for Service Pack 1 for Exchange 12, as we have received a lot of feedback about that," he told eWEEK.
Ressler acknowledged that there had been a de-emphasis on public folders overall within Microsoft over the past 18 months, with its documentation on the Web advising developers not to build new applications based on public folders.
"But they are, of course, in Exchange 12. While we arent adding significant new features to public folders, everything through Exchange 2003 SP2 will be supported in Exchange 12," he said.
Also on the negative side are the answers the Exchange team are giving to questions about how customers will have to deploy all of this new technology. One of the things Exchange 2003 administrators most want to know is how they take their front- and back-end Exchange architecture and move this over to Exchange 12.
They also want to know what the co-existence strategy is with Exchange 12 and Exchange 2003, and exactly what new skills they will have to learn. Some, while pleased they have the new Monad scripting shell to leverage, still want to know what it will cost them to get up to speed on that.
Microsofts response has been that it will give administrators a GUI as well, but that will be different from the one found in Exchange 2003, one source told eWEEK.
Microsofts Ressler said the current GUI in Exchange Server 2003 is known as Exchange System Manager and is being modified and rebuilt, but will remain and feel quite familiar to existing users and will still be hosted in the Microsoft Management Console. The primary difference is that instead of being a two-pane view by default, the new Exchange Management Console uses four panes.
"So it still has a tree view; then it has a results pane, a detail pane and an action pane. We have done a bunch of usability testing with this updated graphical console, [with] both new users who have never managed Exchange and with existing Exchange users. The net of this is that we do not feel there is a steep learning curve to the updated graphical console," he said.
But that is not the case with the command-line experience for Exchange 12, which is based on the new Monad scripting shell that Microsoft is encouraging people to use. "This has a steeper learning curve, without question," Ressler acknowledged, adding that the benefits and payoffs from this "are enormous."
As Monad is a fully scriptable environment, administrators could do a lot of automation using it "if they invest the time to learn that," he said. Microsoft had also identified the Monad technology as its core command-line investment, and the metaphor that Monad uses around verb-noun pairs is one that will become common across all of the command-line experiences for Microsoft server products going forward, he said.
"Administrators will thus have a consistent command-line experience as the Monad technology becomes more common in different Microsoft products. We are working on community efforts to have a script center where people can share scripts and understand what scripts other companies are using. Certification and training efforts have already started for customers looking to evaluate and adopt Exchange 12," Ressler said.
After attending a recent user group presentation, one administrator told eWEEK, "It is going to be really fascinating to see how the market adopts these new Exchange 12 technologies, as it is really going to mean significant IT skills retraining, and significant end-user retraining on the new user interface capabilities there too. But the good thing here is that Microsoft is acknowledging this," the administrator said.
Some analysts agreed, like David Ferris, the president of Ferris Research in San Francisco, who said the many attractive new features of Exchange 12, such as the unified messaging, enhanced mobile support, and task-oriented Outlook/Office 12 user interface, will likely require client upgrades.
"The new features will also require time for users to learn, while the new Exchange System Manager interface will also take administrators time to learn. But the overall level of effort, however, is likely to be less than moving from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000/2003, because the move to Active Directory is already accomplished," he said.
But Microsofts Ressler disagreed, saying that the unified messaging features did not require an upgrade to the client. While the experience would be better if a user was using unified messaging in Exchange and had the latest Outlook 12 client, it would "work fine" with down-level Outlook clients, he said. "We expect people to upgrade selectively, both with Exchange and their desktops," he said.
Keith McCall, a former Exchange executive and now the chief technology officer at Azaleos in Redmond, Wash., which offers an Exchange 2003 appliance with remote maintenance, proactive monitoring, patch management, system fixes and reporting, also said there will be challenges associated with retraining customers IT organizations on Exchange 12.
"It is a great release with a lot of functionality, but the learning curve is steep. It is no longer [enough to] simply deploy an Exchange back-end server and an Exchange front-end server; now you have to think about five different roles and potentially the five different places these Exchange servers are going to be deployed inside your organization," he said.
Administrators would also have to learn a new administrative interface as well as how to use any new software that had been developed, he said. "So, this is awesome technology, but, from an adoption perspective, the learning curve is high. But that is great for us as we make all this complexity simple for users. We will basically put it in a box and make it work," McCall said.
Microsoft will also be talking about, and giving demonstrations of, Exchange 12 at its annual TechEd conference, which is being held in Boston this June.
The Web site for the show promises that attendees will get "real-world learning from Microsofts own IT Professionals; evaluation of soon-to-be-released Microsoft technologies, including Exchange Server 12, Windows Vista and Office 12 before you roll them out in your environment; and insight from Microsoft and industry experts on the products you work with every day."
Ressler confirmed that there would be a lot of sessions around Exchange, the majority of which would be on Exchange 12, from the administrator and end-user sides. But he refused to say whether Exchange 12 beta 2 would be released at the show.