Big Changes in Exchange Server 2007

 
 
By Michael Caton  |  Posted 2006-07-24
 
 
 

Big Changes in Exchange Server 2007


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.



Click here to read the full review of Microsoft Exchange Server 2007.

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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 2007 Beta 2 became widely available on July 24 and is expected to ship in its final form at the end of 2006 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 includes a number of 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 the 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.

Outlook Web Access

From the client side, we liked the most obvious change in this beta: the retooled Outlook Web Access interface, which includes a number of 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.

Microsoft strives to make Exchange more like an appliance. Click here to read more.

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 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.

Next Page: Access anywhere.

Access Anywhere


Also helpful is Outlook Web Access ability to automatically delete out-of-date requests.

Anywhere access

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.

We would have liked to have seen support for other mobile platforms, but with Exchange Server 2007, companies will get the ability to synchronize their users e-mail, Calendars, Contacts and Tasks with Windows Mobile devices. Microsoft is licensing its ActiveSync technology to mobile device manufacturers so non-Windows Mobile devices can access Exchange data.

To test this capability, we used Exchange and the ActiveSync application on a Windows Mobile-based phone over Cingulars network.

We had no problem transferring information, but we did notice a couple-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 lifecycle management features—to become the means of access to (and the system of record for) voice mail.

Azaleos BladeMail appliance simplifies MS Exchange e-mail. Click here to read more.

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 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 the Microsoft PowerShell (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.

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 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 a way to easily 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 is the ability to segment it according to server roles, such as Bridgehead, Client Access or Unified Communications Server.

One role, the Edge 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 plus of providing a way for users to leverage their Outlook Safe Sender 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.

Next page: Evaluation Shortlist: Related Products.

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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)

Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at michael_caton@ziffdavis.com.

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