Microsoft Exchange Online Beta Performs Well

Microsoft's hosted Exchange offering is easy to configure, maintain and use, but it's tied too tightly into Windows.

In one of the most substantial incarnations of its software-plus-services model to date, Microsoft is preparing to throw its hat into an already-crowded ring of hosted Exchange providers.

In fact, Microsoft's Web site lists more than 30 hosted Exchange providers operating in the United States. Perhaps the most significant thing about the company's Exchange Online offering is that it stands as sort of an "all clear" bulletin for organizations either unaware of the Exchange-in-a-cloud option or reticent about introducing a separate vendor between themselves and Microsoft.

Of course, the business of hosting large, multitenant software services is significantly different than that of building on-premises software, so time will tell how well Microsoft adapts to this role. But, based on eWEEK Labs' tests so far of Microsoft's Exchange Online, the service has performed as it should-that is, uneventfully.

I put the beta version of Microsoft Exchange Online through its paces and found the service easy to configure, maintain and use. Beyond a handful of bugs set for squashing before the end of 2008, when the service is set to go gold, my only significant qualm with Exchange Online is its excessive-and, to my mind, un-cloud-like-Windows-centrism.

Where on-premises (and most third-party-hosted) Exchange implementations allow for broad client support via POP3, IMAP and LDAP protocols, Exchange Online mandates Outlook 2007 and the proprietary MAPI (Messaging API) protocol. The service is accessible through the Web with Outlook Web Access, but the full-featured version of OWA requires Internet Explorer 7.

Along similar lines, Exchange Online boasts excellent support for mobile devices running Windows Mobile 6 and good support for the ActiveSync-enabled iPhone 2.0, but organizations running a more diverse set of mobile devices might be better served turning to one of the many third-party Exchange providers out there.

Microsoft's hosted Exchange service consists of a Web-based management console for configuring the service and managing user accounts, a .Net 3.0-based single sign-on application for handling authentication of Exchange and services such as SharePoint, and a set of utilities for Active Directory synchronization and for migrating mailboxes onto Microsoft's service.

Pricing for the service starts at $10 per user, per month for a typical account or $2 per user, per month for a Deskless Worker account that's only accessible through OWA. Both account types come with a 1GB mailbox size. The $10 per month account does not include an Outlook 2007 license.

Alongside Exchange Online, Microsoft is launching hosted versions of its SharePoint, Office Communications and Office Live Meeting services, each available with its own per-user, per-month pricing or bundled with Exchange for $15 per user, per month. Diskless, read-only access to SharePoint can be had along with Deskless Exchange for $3 per month.