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.
Setup and Management
I began my tests of Exchange Online by logging in to the service’s Web-based management interface, which greeted me with straightforward instructions on configuring my domains of choice to send and receive e-mail through my hosted Exchange account.
With the Web interface, I created a couple of users and directed a few test messages their way, then-voila-the mail arrived.
One of my favorite parts of the service’s user-account controls was the option to temporarily disable certain users’ accounts (without deleting the associated mailboxes) to free up Exchange Online licenses for other users. License management is often a confusing piece of the Windows software puzzle, and it’s good to see Microsoft easing these chores with its online services.
For bulk account creation, the service offers tools for synchronizing with an existing Active Directory instance. The tool must be run from a Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2 box that’s running PowerShell, is joined to the domain to be synchronized and is not itself a domain controller.
After satisfying those criteria and enabling AD synchronization from the Web-based management interface, I was able to sync up my modest directory of test users to Exchange Online with a few clicks from my Windows Server 2003 box. I then navigated over to the disabled users list in the Web interface and could enable accounts for some of my uploaded users.
The sync process is one-way only, which is meant to preserve the integrity of the on-premises directory. By default, my Windows Server 2003 box was set to re-sync my directory with my Microsoft Online Services account every three hours moving forward.
I did not test Exchange Online alongside an existing on-premises Exchange server, but after synchronizing my AD instance, I had the options of migrating existing Exchange mailboxes up to the service and of divvying up my users between my on-premises and hosted Exchange services. In the future, I would like to see Microsoft add the option of having on-premises user accounts fail over to the hosted service in case of local Exchange downtime.
Exchange Online provides for virus and spam filtering of incoming and outgoing mail via Exchange Hosted Services. As far as I could tell, there were no spam or virus management controls accessible through the Exchange Online admin site. What’s more, I haven’t maintained my Exchange Online e-mail addresses long enough to test the performance of these filters, so I’ll follow up once those test accounts have had time to accrue some Internet crud.
On the client side, the primary face of Exchange Online is a new single sign-on application that offers a common authentication, and a single launching point, for the various Microsoft Online Services to which a user has access. What’s more, the application will handle initial setup of a local instance of Outlook 2007 if there’s one present on your client system.
The application’s Outlook setup function worked well enough, but when I fired up Internet Explorer 7 to access OWA, I was prompted for my password, even though I’d already logged on through the single sign-on tool. I’m hoping that Microsoft gets its promised single sign-on support working before it marks this service as RTM.
Finally, I synced one of my Exchange Online accounts up with an iPod Touch running Apple’s new 2.0 firmware. Here, the trick was locating the correct URL to use to configure the service from my device. I eventually found the string I needed (red001.mail.microsoftonline.com) on Microsoft’s TechNet Web site, but I would have preferred it if the ActiveSync-Exchange combo could have managed to automatically discover the configuration details from my e-mail domain.
eWEEK Labs’ Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.