Exchange Server 2007 Nears

The second beta is designed to reassure users worried about increased training costs.

Microsoft is hoping that the release of the public second beta of Exchange Server 2007 on July 24 will undo some of the harm caused by the limited-release first beta, which was feature-incomplete and provided little of the familiar Exchange GUI.

The lack of GUI led to the widespread belief that there would be significant training costs associated with learning the new command-line interface in Exchange Server 2007.

Beta 2 includes an improved Exchange Management Console, the GUI that simplifies the navigation tree to three layers. It also includes the new Exchange Management Shell, the command-line interface formerly known as Monad that automates routine and repetitive tasks.

Terry Myerson, general manager of Microsofts Exchange Server group, acknowledged that the feature-incomplete Beta 1 release, with its limited user interface, "scared the heck out of users" and led to the incorrect belief that the only way to manage Exchange Server 2007 would be through the command line.

"This is the most customer-focused release I have ever worked on at Microsoft, and we just need to get some of our messaging right," Myerson said. "Yes, we need to give GUI users GUI, but I know they also need a command line. With Beta 2, we give them both. The fear that they will be forced to learn the command line will hopefully go away."

There had even been initial concern about the command-line issue inside Microsoft, with Derek Ingalls, general manager of the Redmond, Wash., companys IT messaging and collaboration services, worried that all his administrators and those on the help desks and in the operations team who managed Exchange would have to be retrained.

"What we found was that our Exchange administrators naturally gravitated to the command line over time," Ingalls said.

The visceral reaction to the command line also dissipated among customers getting early access to the product through the Exchange TAP (Technology Adoption Program) as they received updates "pumped out" by the UI team, "which is focused on usability [as never before]," Myerson said.

Brian Tirch, a senior engineer for the U.S. Armys Advanced Technologies directorate, in Fort Belvoir, Va., is one such TAP member. Tirch told eWeek that, having grown up using Windows, "I tend to stray away from the command line. But being an early adopter has allowed me to get past that bias and work closer with [the] Monad [scripting environment, now known as Exchange Management Shell.]"

"I am glad to see that everything that can be done via the GUI can be done via a command line. … Each task in the GUI is a set of commands that are shown before or after the task is run," Tirch said. "This is nice because one can copy the commands and use them to build scripts."

Regarding the improved GUI and early fears that this might also involve a hefty learning curve, Tirch said that should not be the case, as the GUI is easy to navigate. However, numerous tasks have been added or moved, which will mean a learning curve of another sort for Exchange administrators, he said.

Keith McCall, a former Exchange executive at Microsoft and now chief technology officer at Azaleos, is also upbeat about the GUI. Redmond-based Azaleos offers an Exchange 2003 appliance that provides remote maintenance, proactive monitoring, patch management, system fixes and reporting.

"The new GUI from Microsoft for Exchange will be a welcome improvement from the old," and the fact that it is based on the Exchange Management Shell will allow ISVs to rapidly augment the GUI with their own enhancements, McCall said.

The GUI features a new, integrated wizard that walks IT administrators through the process of moving their users to the Exchange 2007 product from prior versions, McCall said.

Some testers and users remain unhappy that Outlook Web Access no longer has a UI for accessing public folders.

Myerson said that while Microsoft "fumbled the messaging on public folders pretty significantly, the reality is that public folders are in Exchange 2007 and will provide 100 percent of user public folder needs. Some of this functionality will come in the first service pack, but it will all be there."

But, that being said, the company is investing deeply in SharePoint for collaborative functionality, and SharePoint will be the vehicle for fulfilling "the portal promise, the workflow promise and to deliver the modern collaborative scenarios," Myerson said.

However, a systems integrator with close ties to Microsoft and many Exchange customers said this was a "disappointing response" and questioned why—even if the ability to access public folders through the Outlook Web Access interface was restored in Service Pack 1—Microsoft had removed it in the first place. "It must be like just 20 lines of code," she said.

Another area of concern is that Exchange Server 2007 brings a new modular system of five server roles, which, Myerson said, will reduce installation time, minimize manual configurations and increase security.

But to some IT administrators, who are already stretched by having to focus on e-mail, instant messaging, firewalls, spam, virus filtering, telephone systems, unified messaging, and desktop and printer maintenance, having to spend time understanding five separate server roles for e-mail is "incredibly painful," as one told eWeek.

But this is good news for Azaleos McCall, "as we make all this complexity simple for IT administrators. We will basically put the Exchange 2007 roles in a box and make it available on our OneServer appliance and as part of our OneStop managed services," he said.

Exchange Server 2007 is expected to ship late this year or in early 2007.